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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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 Hero of the Hour, Part 2

Happy Halloween Everybody! In celebration of this spookiest day of the year, I thought it would be fun to publish the conclusion of The Hero of The Hour a whole day early! Don’t worry – there’ll be a post on Wednesday as usual, but I just couldn’t resist a chance to let our favourite ghost be the star of the day!

This story is the second of two parts; it will not make any sense without reading Part 1…

Ch.6 - The Hero of the Hour - Part 2 - small

Richards wasn’t sure if he was proud or insulted that the night-porter, Stephen-no-really-sir-call-me-Steve, appeared not in the least shocked to find the Master of the College striding back and forth in the chapel while lecturing on college history (with brief tangents in the general ecclesiastical trends and their efforts on socio-economic norms) to three bound and gagged young men.

“Interesting night for you, was it, Professor?”

Richards tried not to be too obviously embarrassed at being caught in such … unusual circumstances. He was suddenly aware that even by the standards of Devon College this was not a Normal Start to the Day.

Fortunately, the Stiff Upper Lip asserted itself, as it always ought to in Trying Situations.

“Ah, good morning Stephen! And how do you fare this dawn?”

Stephen-no-honestly-sir-please-call-me-Steve was still staring at Richards’ captive audience, but he was grinning as he responded that the dawn was especially picturesque today and that Richards would be pleased to know that the weather forecast was due to be fine and dry throughout the day.

“I’m sorry, Professor, but I really feel like we need to get back to the – ah – the visitors you seem to be entertaining?”

The poor man was giving every sign of a man who was not at all sure that he wanted the explanation, but the resignation in his tone was displaying fully their mutual knowledge that he was going to be asked for such an explanation very soon. He looked no happier when Richards provided the explanation, although they shared an instinctive feeling that it was Undoubtedly Best to attempt to get the matter cleared up before the senior fellows were up and about.

“I know, Stephen, that these may be the feelings of an old man, but I understand that the police-force is getting younger every year. There’s really no call to subject them to the Bursar before it is absolutely necessary. Some faith in humanity is doubtless an important aspect in young officers of the law?”

Stephen’s wife had been in the police force in the past, Richards’ recalled, and he hoped that this valuable experience would aid him in crafting whatever semblance of the night’s events would be socially acceptable…

*

The saying goes that the best-laid plans go often awry and sadly so it proved this morning.

It had begun smoothly enough; the Chaplain had been summoned and, when menacing Richards with an Outburst of Gratitude, was swiftly diverted onto providing the three would-be vandals with tea, biscuits and Encouraging Words. No harm’s been done after all, Horace, and I’m sure that these young men have simply lost the True Path. They just need someone to believe in them! I’ll just sit with them and have a nice chat…

Richards swiftly got out of sight as the police arrived, no reason to cause more awkward questions. Last time he saw the Chaplain, he’d pulled out the pamphlets. You almost had to feel sorry for the boys – this night was doubtless one they would long regret.

Richards tried very hard not to sigh from his perch on the chapel roof, when the Trunbridge and Farthingbury Fellows strolled nonchalantly into the quad, took one look at the uniformed officers leading Richards’ erstwhile new acquaintances out of the chapel, and all-but flew back into their shared office. He supposed it was too much to ask that the alarm might remain silent until it was all over?

Richards had the highest respect for the intellectual pursuits and talents of his colleagues, but sadly he was also well-aware of their ‘general life-skills’ as one of the summer helpers had called them. Sarah, the Bursar’s PA, would often say (in his hearing no less – she knew perfectly well that he had hidden from the Chaplain inside that cleaning cupboard!) that Richards was too hard on the Fellows. Their behaviour this morning proved his case beyond dispute.

“Sirs, I’m sorry to bother you with this, especially since there’s no question of this going to trial – the men have all admitted to breaking-and-entering. But they all agree that they were held prisoner by a ghost?”

The Detective-Sergeant was clearly eager to get the last of the questions over and done with. Stephen-no-sir-I-promise-you-everyone-calls-me-Steve had volunteered to assert that he had stumbled across the men on his rounds and had subdued them more by luck than skill (Richards’ had been impressed by the man’s humility, if not his honesty). The evidence had been plain, the culprits caught, there was surely little remaining, and yet…

“What?!” Three of the gathered academics cried, jumping like schoolboys caught with illicit cookies.

Richards groaned and buried his face in his hands, as the Bursar took it upon himself to gallantly make everything worse.

“What nonsense! The college has no ghosts on its staff!” At this point, the Bursar’s brain clearly attempted to regain control of his mouth for a brief shining instant. “Not that ghosts are real of course. Because they are not. Clearly the ravings of sleep-deprivation, I should say, poor chaps.” Before sadly his habitual inability to cease and desist while ahead broke through. “And even if ghosts were real, I make a point of not employing them in the college under any circumstances!”

Richards sighed and made a note to ask Sarah if she could find the Bursar a nice unaudited ledger, or some small change to count. Something to settle the poor man’s nerves after the ordeal of having to speak to people he could not bluster into submission…

“Yes sir,” and too his credit, the Sergeant’s face barely even twitched. If being faced with a flustered Bursar first-thing in the morning couldn’t shake the man, Richards really had no wish to envision what comprised his usual duty. “Sir, do you think we might be able to speak to the Master of the College before we leave?”

There was a long, horrified pause.

“No!” “Totally impossible!” “Utterly out of the question, terribly sorry-“

Dependably, the Bursar continued to Provide Assistance. “And not because the man’s a ghost of course! Because he isn’t!”

“He’s in meeting!” The Clevebury Fellow jumped in.

“He’s at a conference,” The Meterston Lecturer spoke at the same time.

“He’s not been feeling very well lately!” Everyone fell silent to look disparagingly at the Trunbridge Fellow; it seemed that imagination was not the poor chap’s strong point.

It was hardly surprising that the police were starting to look suspicious. Richards was thankful that acting was not a key requirement across academia; he would, on this showing, be left with an empty college…

The Bursar tried to salvage everything.

“But he is, with any shadow of a doubt, alive, wherever he is! You can rest assured on that count.”

Richards wondered if Margaret had a way to send anonymous tokens of gratitude to the police force of Oxford? Something to compensate them for dealing with his fellows like this. Not one single officer laughed and no one was arrested for insanity. He wasn’t sure if this said something of the generosity of their hearts or the poor impression of academics generally? Either way, he was going to have to Speak To his fellows Most Strongly about The Importance of Interacting with Society Properly. This was obviously well-overdue.

Just as the gathering had reached its peak of utter preposterousness, a cry came from the back like the rallying-call of a beleaguered army when rescued by angels.

“Margaret! You’re here!”

Richards watched as the police, the fellows and the staff all turned in perfect synchrony, like a field of sunflowers, towards their saviour, sent as if by prayer to redeem them from the pit of their own making. Richards was momentarily afraid that the Fernbury Fellow was about to propose marriage he looked so relieved to see salvation approaching in a woolly jumper and sensible mackintosh.

*

That Margaret did not turn on her sensible heel, duck past Stephen-even-my-wife-calls-me-Steve as he tried to usher her towards the disaster that was Devon’s fellows Interacting with Society faster, and walk straight back out of Devon College heading for the safety of home was yet another sign that she was a Treasure the likes of which whole wars had once been fought over.

She smiled politely at the officers in greeting, requested their patience for a few moments longer, soothed the fellows back to some semblance of sense and coherency before shooing them off to their breakfast, and even diverted the Bursar’s attention from causing further disaster by casually mentioning that the strong-room doubtless needed to be checked for signs of a forced entry.

One officer – younger than the rest and still overly keen – tried to explain that the porters had gone with the police already to check but had cowered under the sharp glare he had received over behind the Bursar’s back. Even his colleagues had shot him reproving looks at his near-scuppering of any scheme to send the overwrought man away with some busy-work.

At last, however the crowd had been disbursed with the calm authority of an empress in her own court and Margaret was free to favour the police with a benevolent smile.

“Now how may I help you, gentlemen? My understanding is that the matter is all but cleared up, is that not correct?”

“No, Ma’am, that’s correct,” the sergeant mumbled after being pushed forward by the others, “we only wanted to speak with the Master of the College, ma’am, before heading out.”

“Ah,” Margaret’s smile was so kindly that even Richards blushed and shuffled his feet. “I see now. Well, I’m terribly sorry, gentlemen but Professor Richards is away on a research trip this week, but I shall brief him on all that has occurred and I expect that you will receive a note of thanks in the next few days.”

Richards wondered idly if he was going to see this note he was writing before it was sent…

*

The sound of fluttering tweeds signalled the return of the Bursar as the last police car drove away.

“Margaret, you were wonderful!” Steady on, thought Richards, don’t go overboard there, Bursar, you can’t go around stealing my secretary just like that! He needn’t have worried though; the Bursar could always be relied upon to sink his own fleet. “I solemnly apologise for all those times I changed my papers for the Governing Body meetings the night before to make you re-do the photocopying.”

There was a considered pause, in which Richards silently promised himself that when Margaret killed the Bursar in the main quad, he would not stand for the man coming back to share his afterlife. No, not even if Sarah threatened to cry at him.

However Margaret only smiled fondly, as though the Bursar were a ridiculous but cherished nephew and patted his forearm gently.

“Yes well, Bursar, just so long as you try to refrain from such nonsense in the future.”

As the Bursar bustled off again, Margaret turned and, presumably with the magic powers she swore she didn’t have, looked directly at the invisible Richards. She said nothing and nothing needed to be said. Richards floated meekly to her side and shimmered back into view.

“I see that you have already accomplished impossible feats before breakfast, Professor.”

“Yes, Margaret.”

She smiled at him then, warm and fond and even (a little) respectful. “Well done, Professor.”

“Thank you, Margaret.”

They went into the office together. The day had only just started, after all.

Missed Part 1 of Hero of the Hour? Need to catch up? Follow the link here.

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…

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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.

Posted in Ghosts & Gowns, Short Stories

A Crisis of Faith

The general consensus in Devon College had been that 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.

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‘Has anyone told the Chaplain about this? I really think someone needs to call the Chaplain about this.’

‘What? No, why would we? He’s nice and safe in the South of France on the choir tour, there’s no need to confront the poor man with the undead in his workplace ahead of time.’

‘Are you mad? Of course we should bother him with this! He’s the ideal person to deal with it – or at the very least give us guidance on dealing with this.’

‘Martin! We absolutely are not exorcizing the Master of the College! There’re rules about that!’

‘There are rules about exorcism? Really?’

‘Not now, Frank. Let’s not get diverted from the main issue, please’

‘No, really, has anyone ever thought half-way through an exorcism, “Well, this is rude and discourteous”?’

‘There are rules about not killing people off to get them out of the way! I’m pretty sure that covers exorcism somewhere…’

‘Brian, don’t go and look it up right now, leave it until later, can you?’

‘I wasn’t suggesting an exorcism to get the old boy out of the way -‘

‘You absolutely were! What else do you need a chaplain for with a ghost?’

‘I just mean that the Master might need someone to talk to about all this. I mean, it can’t be easy coming back from the dead. And let’s face it; the Chaplain’s got to be the College expert in people suddenly coming back from the dead against all reason. The Master must be having all sorts of questions about his future and what his life means if he’s doomed to wander as a ghost…’

There was a long pause, likely caused by the sheer force of three deeply sceptical Looks from his companions. Finally one fellow found the strength to make the obvious enquiry.

‘Does the Master look like he’s mid-existential crisis to you?’

‘No…’

‘Has the Master ever looked like he would have a crisis about himself?’

‘Well, I suppose I have to hand that to you; not even a little bit.’

‘And even if he did have any such concerns, do you really feel that Lawrence – Good Man though he may be – would be of any use whatsoever in his coming to terms with the Afterlife?’

Another silence, this time more tactfully contemplative.

‘He’s a dab-hand with the tea and biscuits, got to give the man credit where it’s due.’

‘And picks all the old favourites for the hymns on Sundays.’

Another pause.

‘However I do concede the point that the Master may not require any of the Chaplain’s gifts in this instance.’

The matter seemingly settled, there was a general relieved exhaling of men glad to turn to more Serious Topics, such as the upcoming Boat Race and the undoubted poor form of the opposition, before a plaintive wail rang out.

‘I didn’t mean we should kill the old boy off to get him out of the way!’

‘Now, now, Martin, there’s no need to get yourself worked up about these things.’

‘It isn’t as if no one else has been thinking it after all, we understand how you feel. But Standards really Must Be Maintained around the place.’

‘Stop planning the demise of the old man, Martin, there’s a good chap. Especially via the Chaplain; the poor man’s already on retreat and all he’s had to face is students; we can’t throw ghosts and subsequent exorcism-requests at him until his Inner Strength has been recovered. Leave the man alone. In fact, leave both of them alone.’

*

It may have surprised his colleagues to discover that Professor Richards himself was a little unsure about how the Chaplain might take the news that he would henceforth be working with the undead.

While not a man to beat around the bush in the Ordinary Course of Events, Richards was on this occasion planning on … easing him in to the knowledge as it were…

Unfortunately, Margaret was having none of it.

‘Ah, Professor, there you are.’ Richards stopped in his (floating) tracks and immediately took on a hunted expression, ‘I have arranged for the Chaplain to see you first-thing on his return to the college.’

Richards closed his eyes, prayed briefly for strength and protection in his next actions and then asked,

‘Do you really think that’s wise, Margaret?’

Silence. Richards was unreasonably proud of himself for not fleeing for his Non-Life when Margaret slowly raised one eyebrow.

‘I’m afraid that I don’t quite take your meaning, Professor?’

Oh dear. That was the Tone of Mild Enquiry. Few who had heard it Lived to Tell the Tale…

‘Well, I mean the man’s only just arrived back in the country, he’ll be wanting to catch up on emails and the like…’ Richards recognised full well the shaky ground upon which he stood in suggesting that a fellow of the college (with rare and decidedly strange exceptions) would be eager to read their emails under any circumstance. ‘I shouldn’t want to put him out of his way like this?’

Margaret softened in the face of his hopeful expression and her lips curled slightly in a small smile. Her grey eyes twinkled over the tops of her glasses and Richards had a moment to hope, to believe that maybe, just maybe he would be reprieved –

‘Now Professor, I promise you faithfully that I will not allow him to bring out the bells, books or candles at any time during the interview. After gaining a Master of the College who listens so nicely and the prospect of not needing to replace him with a new model, I should be Highly Displeased if the Chaplain were to attempt to remove him.’

‘But what if -?’

Richards got no further before the twinkling eyes turned stern and he forced himself to actually picture any sort of confrontation between Margaret and the Chaplin; a slight, willowy man prone to clearing his throat in odd moments when speaking, with shoulders hunched to disguise his height. It would be a bloodbath, he was sure, and Richards was equally certain that the Good Lord Himself would blench from the prospect of reprimanding Margaret for devouring one of His shepherds.

‘Yes, Margaret. I’ll see him when he arrives.’

Margaret favoured him then with a fond smile.

‘Very good, Professor. You’ll be meeting him in his office, which as I’m sure you remember is next to the Chapel, yes?’

Richards forbore to argue further. Margaret would protect him if necessary…

*

To the amazement of all (except possibly Margaret), when the Chaplain arrived back from his vacation he took one look at the ghostly form of the Master, and then a wide grin split his face.

Richards looked at the man in front of him cautiously. The Chaplain looked indeed ready to explode with some Great Emotion and he was wary of becoming the focus of An Episode.

‘Professor Richards! Why, this is wonderful!’

Richards blinked. ‘It is?’

The Chaplain was advancing on him now and Richards briefly wished to run. It was too late however, as the Chaplain merrily grasped his chilled hand his both of his own and began to shake it vigorously.

‘Oh my dear Professor Richards, but of course it is! This is a most wonderful moment indeed! Absolutely wonderful! An Irrefutable Sign that death is not the end for us all, people will be so pleased!’

Richards had a moment of terror that he was about to be embraced by the enthused man, but the Chaplain managed, barely, to restrain himself.

‘I’m, ah, very pleased to see that you are so comfortable with my Alternative State of Health, Lawrence,’ he hazarded.

The Reverend Lawrence Hargreaves Beamed at him. Then his smile dimmed, and was replaced by Profound Concern. Richards eyed the walls and windows in Readiness of Escape.

‘Oh my goodness, Professor! You must forgive me, I had not even considered!’

Richards had a feeling that his bewilderment was showing. The Chaplain took him firmly by the shoulders and sat him down in an empty pew, patting his arm comfortingly.

‘Professor, I understand that this of course will be a great shock and period of terrible change for you. How are you feeling about all this? Are you handling this well? Should I see about getting someone to speak to you, if you don’t feel comfortable speaking to me about your concerns? Although of course, I should be happy to listen to anything you might wish to confide?’

Richards sighed in both relief and weariness. A Chaplain wishing to Provide Comfort was a Tricky Thing to shake off. Bluster was the quickest way out, he judged, pulling himself up to his full, if midling translucent height.

‘Really Lawrence, I must protest! Have you ever had the impression from me that mere Death would uproot my State of Calm? My sense of purpose? Never! I assure you that I am Perfectly Well, both in Mind and in – well, not in Body, quite, I grant you this – but I am as sound all through as any Member of the Spectral Community has any right to be! I have no need of Guidance through This Trouble Time!’

If Richards had hoped his outrage would curb the Chaplain’s enthusiasm, he was sadly mistaken. Now assured of Richards’ comfort with his own State, Lawrence returned to congratulating him on his Great Achievement, on his Pushing the Boundaries of What We Know of Our Existence.

Richards faded out to contemplate, idly, whether the view from the Chaplin’s office weren’t more attractive than his own, eventually conceding that it was not and that no shifting of offices needed to be attempted.

After a few moments, Richards tuned back into what his companion was saying. ‘… And of course this will do wonders for our efforts in inclusivity! No one can doubt the seriousness of our intentions that we truly welcome all forms of life when even those of Alternative Lives play an important role in the College…’

The Master of Devon College desperately wished that his assistant was as omniscient as she had always appeared and that Margaret would Come to His Rescue soon…

Missed a chapter? Find the whole series so far here.