Reactions to the news that Professor Richards would not be allowing mere death to interfere with him living a full life were… mixed.
The first person to encounter Richards in his Alternative State of Health was naturally his assistant, Margaret. Margaret was of indefinite age, and decidedly definite personality. She reminded everyone of their dearly beloved mother, regardless of the age of the fellow in question. Black-and-silver hair pulled up into a neat knot at the back, the kind of slender figure which brought to mind assassins’ knives instead of willows’ branches and the stately bearing of a queen who had undoubtedly murdered her husband to rule the kingdom but is doing so well at it that no one is inclined to mention it.
Richards assumed that she was in possession of a surname, but Margaret had come with the College and had been introduced as such. Richards had once tried to ask for his assistant’s full name but had retreated rapidly into his office to get away from the Silence she menaced him with.
If Richards were to be Entirely Honest that first morning as he came down for work, he might have admitted to a secret thrill of excitement. Margaret was one of those calm and confident persons who had worked in the eccentric realm of Oxford’s colleges for so long that nothing surprised or inconvenienced her. Richards had tried on occasion but had failed entirely and the resulting punishment of extra meetings or paperwork which she would ordinarily have screened and sent away had soon rendered further efforts unpalatable. This time however, Richards was in possession of a situation even Margaret would not have seen coming…
‘Good Morning, Professor Richards.’ Margaret didn’t even look up from her screen, despite Richards having strolled through her wall rather than her door.
Perhaps she had not noticed yet? Although how she would know he was there when he was now as silent as the, ah, grave… Well, nothing for it but to press on!
‘Good Morning, Margaret. I wonder if you might be able to move some of my meetings this morning until later in the week, as a Matter of Some Importance has arisen over night?’
‘Of course, Professor.’ At this, Margaret looked up but no matter how closely Richards looked, not even a flicker of shock passed through her eyes. ‘Will you be wanting to keep your meeting with the Bursar at ten however?’
Richards waited for a moment to see if the realisation would dawn. Nothing.
‘Yes,’ he said slowly, wondering if he should bring it up. ‘I think that would be best, although if you could warn him that much of his planned agenda with have to remain undealt with as we consider Other Matters?’
‘Of course, Professor.’ Margaret looked back to her screen, her fingers already typing the message. ‘And will you be wishing for me to hold your calls as well?’
She has to have noticed, Richards thought to himself. There was no way she hadn’t realised Richards’ somewhat transparent appearance, his suit (Richards had put a lot of concentration into altering his clothes from his nightwear to his day suit. He didn’t care if the dead ought to appear as they had when Death had intruded upon them; Horace Richards Did Not Appear to others in his Nightwear!) was a far more faint shade of grey than was usual and his tie was likewise faded.
But what if Margaret had not realised that she was speaking to a ghost? Richards considered her green-rimmed glasses instead of the piercing silver eyes behind them. He felt a bit at a loss. It was probably more polite to say one was dead than leave someone in the dark, wasn’t it? But how did one break such news gently?
Margaret continued to type as her eyes peered sternly over the tops of her glasses. ‘Professor?’
Richards jumped; that was probably undignified in a Person of Alternative Health, he ought not to Bring Disgrace unto the Community. ‘Oh! Yes!’ He coughed and tried not to shuffle his feet, hovering as they were an inch or so above the carpet. ‘Yes, that would be most helpful if you could. Hold my calls, that is.’
Margaret released him from her gaze, answer successfully extracted. ‘Very well, Professor.’
Richards suspected he had Been Dismissed, but he was sure this ought to be The Moment to confide in her. ‘Margaret…’ he began but got no further.
His assistant looked up once more, this time a touch of impatience lurking in the corners of her steely gaze. ‘Professor Richards. You have something else to discuss?’
Horace Richards, Master of Devon College, had been seventy-three at the moment of his death, had fought in two wars and had braved interviews, doctoral vivas and hostile conference audiences. He shrank from his assistant’s Look.
‘No, Margaret; that will be all.’ He mumbled into his tie like a schoolboy.
Margaret, assured that she would have the peace of her office restored imminently, favoured him with a small look of Approval. ‘Wonderful.’
‘And Professor?’ She added as Richards tried to discreetly float through the next wall and into his own office without Margaret noticing now that he had muffed his announcement. ‘I trust that you would like your,’ she paused to consider her phrasing, ‘more solid form disposed of? Would you prefer for a college-based funeral for colleagues only, or a public announcement?’
Richards shook his head to himself, ruefully. Of course the blasted woman wouldn’t be shaken by a spectre of death entering her office. He ought to have known…
The first thing the Bursar did as he bustled through the door to the Master’s Office was to ignore Margaret’s gentle cough of warning. This was his first mistake and Richards felt that he deserved every moment of what came next.
One ignored Margaret At One’s Peril.
‘Master, it really is entirely impossible for us not to speak to every item on this agenda, I am sorry. Whatever it is that you wish to speak to me about must simply take its turn alongside other College Business.’
He was too busy consulting his list and adjusting his glasses as they threatened to slip down his beak-like nose. He was a tall man with the face of some primordial eagle, his hair thinned out of all existence and his hook-like fingers grasped an enormously thick sheaf of papers to his heaving chest.
Richards coughed gently, wishing to draw the man’s gaze before he insisted that some items would absolutely have to wait.
The Bursar finally looked up, blinking for a second before proceeding to drop every sheet of the bundle of papers he was clutching. There was a beat of silence before, just as Richards opened his mouth to begin speaking, the Bursar let out a ragged scream, turned on his heel and pelted from the room, slamming the door behind him as though this would impede Richards from following him.
Richards could hear him start to splutter to Margaret that there was- did she see- there was actually- had she known? Although he could not make out Margaret’s reply, he certainly recognised her Tone as a combined and potent mixture of ‘You Have Displeased Me Mightily’ and ‘You Are Not So Senior That I Cannot Reduce You To Tears’. As much fun as it would be to watch somebody else be on the receiving end of an irate Margaret, he decided that remaining where he sat was the better part of valour on this occasion.
Not that he was intimidated or anything. He didn’t wish to draw her fire by interrupting her mid-flow!
When the Bursar returned, looking pale and shaken and shame-faced, Richards simply could not restrain himself, and so patted him consolingly on the shoulder. ‘I do hope that she wasn’t too harsh on you, old boy?’
The Bursar nearly flinched as Richards’ ghostly hand touched him, but caught himself and held resolutely still.
‘I believe that she was concerned that I would give you cause to be self-conscious about your …’ He trailed off as he looked again at Richards’ floating spectre, flailing a little in place of an end to his sentence.
Richards felt a little glow of Emotion warm through himself. He didn’t realise Margaret cared so.
‘How very kind of her! I, ah, I had not considered my long-term feelings on the matter, but it is always nice to be thought of.’ He paused and considered the Broken Man in his arm chair. Perhaps speaking of paperwork would bring some relief for the Bursar’s state of shock? ‘I have taken to referring to this whole business as my Alternative State of Health, Bursar, if you could see your way to incorporating that into your paperwork?’
The Bursar made what was evidently a great effort to pull himself together and nodded his head.
‘Naturally.’ He looked at Richards over his glasses as they slipped down his nose again. ‘Margaret is very protective of you, Master. She has been Impressed by your performance at the college and will be Most Pleased that she will be able to keep you now.’
Richards nodded solemnly. ‘Margaret’s approval is a high accolade.’
The moment of shared understanding now being at an end, the Bursar shifted as if ruffling his non-existent primeval feathers.
‘Now really, Master! We Really Must speak about the dreadful amount of trouble this may bring to the college. It is Most Unorthodox. Inconvenient as it is for you to die in an untimely manner before the end of your contract, I really must protest at you taking matters into your own hands like this.’
He paused for a moment, as though considering an idea which had only just occurred to him. ‘Although come to think of it, I suppose this could be seen as a very economical solution to for the College to not have to replace the Master every eight years or so.’ He glowered at Richards sharply. ‘Have you any idea of how much those Head-Hunting companies charge? I remember what the last lot cost! And the interview costs!’ The Bursar all but shuddered at the very thought.
Richards smiled to himself as he Marshalled his Arguments. It was reassuring to be back to back to normal.
‘Did you read the paper, Terry? Old Horace Richards has died!’
Professor Terrence Johnson sat down heavily into the rich veleveteen depths of the Senior Common Room armchair and stared at his friend.
‘What’s that? Richards dead? When did this happen?’
Dr Karl Bosko leaned forward, eager to be the bearer of new information to a colleague whose connections and penchant for gossip meant that he had usually had the story long before Karl could tell him.
‘Last Sunday night I heard, in his sleep, poor devil. Peaceful way to go, but he was so full of life and whatnot…’
He trailed off as Johnson was shaking his head in a very decided manner.
‘Oh balderdash, Bosko! If you’re going to try your hand at gossiping, you must learn not to mix people up and make an absolute hash of the whole business!’
Karl frowned, stung by his friend’s vehemence.
‘How’d you mean, not mixing people up? The paper said Professor Horace Richards, Master of Devon College! I’d like to know how many others you know answering to that title!’
At this pronouncement Terry Johnson looked momentarily abashed, and Karl thought for a moment that he had won the point.
‘Really now? I say, I am sorry about snapping then, Karl, I really am! Not your fault that papers these days can’t fact check anything properly.’
Karl had a feeling that this conversation was about to go completely off course again…
‘You don’t consider it possible that Richards could be dead then?’
Terry gave his friend a grandfatherly look, which Karl would have objected to from a man not five years his senior, but all such thoughts ended with the next sentence.
‘I shouldn’t think so, what with him just having finished chairing the Development Panel meeting before lunch! I know papers are getting their stories out damn quick, but I still think this is pushing the envelope!’
Karl laughed with him at the mistake, glad that at the very least the error was not his own. When they calmed, Johnson looked thoughtfully out of the window and commented,
‘Mind you, I shouldn’t wonder that the old boy ought to start cutting back a bit on all his activites; he didn’t look at all well this morning.’
‘Not at all! White as a sheet and as fragile looking you’d think you could walk right through him! Fellow needs to slow down at his time of life or he really will end up as a notice in the paper!’
Missed a chapter? Find the whole series so far here.