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.
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…
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.”
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.
Author’s Note: I feel that for this story I should be extra clear that I know absolutely nothing about police procedure or breaking-and-entering, save for what I’ve read and seen in fiction. In case the ghost wandering around the story didn’t tip you off, this series has no basis whatsoever in fact, and isn’t based on any kind of real events!
In the entirely confident opinion of Professor Horace Richards, one never really appreciated the true length of night-time until one had absolutely no ability to sleep through it. It was just the sort of thing, in his view, which doubtless caused so many members of the Spectral Community (should it exist, although Richards was leaning heavily in favour of this likelihood in the light of his own Situation) to resort to Childish Pranks and Irresponsible Nonsense.
Not that Richards could really comment. Why, only last week he had spent a Highly Enjoyable Time carefully moving all of the furniture in the SCR exactly one inch to the left. The number of bruised shins and scattered papers had kept him entertained for hours, along with the general concern of the Fellowship that they were collectively losing their grip on the reality as they had known it. Fortunately the Steward had found the experience just as entertaining as Richards, and though she had attempted to scold him, she had kindly not breathed a word of the matter to Margaret, who may have Had her Suspicions but had therefore been able to prove nothing!
Although Richards had thankfully not been banned from the libraries of the city, provided that he replace anything he used to its correct location, he had also taken up a habit of nightly Constitutional Walks, very healthy and whatnot for a conscientious Person of Alternative Health. It allowed him to really Come to Grips with the city which had been his home for over fifty years and yet was so often a mystery to him. It presented an opportunity to join, if only in a silent and intangible way, with the life and vitality of a population which was both so strange and so similar to that of the days of Horace Richards’ own student-years.
He had not cared for the Tone of the Bursar’s laughter when he had exposited on the Benefits of Regular Exercise for Spectral Persons to the Fellows over luncheon, but Margaret had assured him afterwards that the Bursar was likely suffering from envy at Richards’ dedication to the Appropriate Use of Free Time and New-Found Opportunities.
This evening, Richards was taking his Constitutional Exercise closer to home than usual. It had been a hectic week and he was glad to be on more familiar ground, not exploring new secrets in the dark. Devon College had been home for so long, at one time or another in his life, and the stones all but spoke to him as he floated around, of students and colleagues old and new, of balls and drinks and dinners, of fights and arguments and debates.
He was so caught up in the whisperings of the walls, Richards almost didn’t notice the opened window, until a stray breeze floated through it and ruffled his… whatever it was he was made of. Richards wasn’t thinking about it, and he certainly wasn’t going to let the FitzMatthew Medical Fellow take a look into the matter either!
He looked a bit closer. The window had certainly been forced open, now that one was looking. Richards was a Man of the World after all; he knew what a break-in looked like. Well! Now here was something different and exciting! After all, as the Master of the College and a Good Citizen, Richards would have to track down the Miscreants and See Justice Served!
He put his shoulders back and breathed deeply. Onwards to Glory!
After a short search, Richards came upon a small group of young men Advancing Purposefully through the shadows towards the Chapel. Aha! Richards took up the pursuit, silent and invisible – One couldn’t be Too Careful at his Time of Life after all!
As he drew nearer, he was able to make out the whispered conversation taking place.
“- know where the strong room is?”
“Well, no, not-“
“Exactly! But I’ve seen the Chaplain here, he’s got all this ‘Faith in Humanity’ stuff going on. He’ll never have the good stuff locked up. There’ll be something worth taking – and what the hell? Did anyone else feel that?”
“Feel what, Mike?”
“Like an icicle dripped on your spine?”
The silence Mike’s statement was met with suggested that his companions had not felt the icy blast of Richards’ cold rage, but that was of no matter so long as the focus of the rage was on the receiving end. How dare this- this- this brigand go around insulting the Reverend Lawrence Hargreaves? Richards himself may have considered the Chaplain to be a touch … well, trusting would have been a moderate phrase if not untrue. But that certainly did not mean that other people were permitted to cast aspersions upon the Chaplain like this!
That settled it. As if the indignity of having one’s college ransacked were not enough, one thought of how Lawrence’s faith in humanity and the sanctity of his chapel being both broken in one thoughtless act was too much for Richards to take. Just because one’s heart had stopped did not mean that it was made of stone, after all! These young men would not be the ones to build the poor Chaplain back up again, to comfort him when his optimism was challenged, to (Richards shivered for a moment) share in cups of tea and provide Emotional Support. That lot would fall to Richards after all, as Master of the College he could not in Good Conscience shirk his duty.
The Chaplain had been nothing but kind to Richards since his death, and indeed had been nothing but universally caring towards any human or animal who so much as paused when in his eyesight and someone needed to step up and defend the man in return!
Richards watched as the lead figure bent, picking the lock with what, even to Richards’ amateur-eye, seemed to be expert ease. Richards was at least glad that experienced hands were trying to ransack his college. He wasn’t sure he could stand it if his college were being besieged by amateurs on a lucky break…
“Didn’t they have those candlesticks? In silver?”
Richards suppressed a snort and he followed them inside the vestry, and tried not to knock over the racks of vestments and other oddments the Chaplain insisted were necessary. The Bursar should be so lucky; solid silver candlesticks indeed…
“I dunno ‘bout no candlesticks, but I definitely saw a golden glass once.”
“A golden glass? Really?”
No, Richards thought to himself, as his eye twitched in annoyance. Not really. He tried to think of what they might be referencing, coming up only with –
Everyone froze, Richards silently berating himself for losing his composure and speaking up at last, and the burglars presumably in response to a voice apparently coming from nowhere.
Richards had no sympathy.
“Stan, was that you?”
“No. Hey, what’s a chalice, Bob?”
“I dunno, do I?”
Still irate and invisible, Richards decided that covert operations were for people with pulses and blithely talked over whatever Mike thought he was going to say next.
“That, gentlemen, is painfully obvious to us all. Golden glass indeed. I recognise that there is little use in the modern world for the term ‘chalice’ outside of religious circles, but I would hope that when one resorts to the sale of other people’s property, one would have the gumption to know what that property was called,” as the beam of one torch flashed past him, Richards allowed his face to become visible in the weak light, disembodied and floating. “Would you not agree, gentlemen?”
One of the men – Stanley, Richards thought – squeaked. The other torches came up, frantically searching the wall behind Richards, but he had hidden himself again. They may not be able to see anything, but they clearly had better instincts than knowledge of ecclesiastic equipment, since they still huddled together and backed out into the main chapel space.
Richards followed, stretching out to find some small and easily replaced items to float around them. Now, it isn’t easy to make The New Edition of Psalms and Hymns look threatening and Richards had a feeling that he was not going to get sufficient credit for this later. No one appreciated his genius…
Attempting to be Vaguely Dramatic (Richards hadn’t really put much thought or practice into a really frightening haunting and now he regretted that oversight, what sort of Spectral Being was he?) Richards allowed himself to come once again into focus in the soft multi-coloured moonlight streaming through the stained glass.
Bob, or rather Robert, who now that Richards could see him properly illuminated, was clearly the youngest of the group, quite suddenly burst into tears.
“Me Ma al’ays tol’ me there’d be no good from robbin’ a church! Mike, I tol’ you this was a bad idea! Now there’s an angel of the Lor’!”
Richards had a sudden moment in which he was blindingly grateful that none of the Fellows had heard such a speech. The theologians would never stop laughing. Then he huffed.
“Really now, young man! A church indeed! Why, this is manifestly a chapel! Have you no notion of the Important Ecclesiastical Difference between them?”
Robert just shrugged, sniffed and wiped his eyes on his sleeve, looking very young indeed. Margaret, Richards promised himself there and then, could never be allowed to discover that he had made a young boy cry. She had Ways and Means to make him suffer. Eternally. He tried to look less threatening, hoping to give the boy heart and look less like a vengeful celestial being.
It must have been more effective than he imagined because one of the men, possibly Mike as the leader had clearly reached the end of his rope and grabbed the lectern. He swung it wildly, still a feat because that thing weighed a ton, and Richards certainly hadn’t thought to try and lift it, bringing it around to smash into Richards’ ribs.
There was a moment of truly horrified silence from the men when the lectern passed right through Richards. This probably wasn’t going to help Young Robert and his fear of damnation, now that Richards really considered the matter…
Mike’s grip on the lectern slackened and Richards reached out with a frantic burst of adrenalin (or the spectral equivalent, he still wasn’t going to ask the Medicine Fellow about that) and caught the antique before it could smash into the medieval tiles.
“Careful now, young man, that’s not easy to repair if you break it, you know.”
Richards shook his head, “That lectern, young man, was presented to the college in 1783 by the widow of Sir Paul Mildews, a most distinguished professor and a valued member of the college in his day. Very pious man, or so I hear, not that I knew him personally of course… Regardless! I will not have you desecrating his memory by breaking it in such a careless manner, you hear?”
The men were still standing in stunned silence, but Richards had a feeling this wouldn’t last for long. He sighed.
“And now what am I to do with you all, hmm?” Young Michael opened his mouth as if to answer, but shut it with a snap at Richard’s irate eyebrow. “I was not opening the floor to suggestions, young Vandal. Do you know what I shall suffer if the Bursar discovers this? He will flap, gentlemen. He will flap around until he’s made a security system so sound that none who work for the college will be able to get in.”
Speaking of security though…
The night porters were fine men with admirable dedication to the college, however they were well-known to nap through the darkest hours, not that Richards did not understand and envy them for this. Richards was uncomfortable with the notion of leaving the three men in the chapel unattended while he went to alert the duty-porter of the need for help. There was no telling what they could get up to! But what was Richards to do with them?
Horace Richards was not a family man, and he may have spent the last few years of his natural life negotiating with men and women as powerful, mature and argumentative as himself but he has started off teaching crowds of what he had been continually assured were bright young minds (in flagrant contradiction of the available evidence, if you asked him.)
The result was that when Richards gestured imperiously at a row of pews and barked, “Now sit!” there was an instant and obedient response. Richards fixed them with a gimlet-eyed gaze before moving his hands to grip the lapels of his jacket in what any of Richards’ past students would have identified as his lecturing pose.
Unseen by the men, Richards reached for the curtain ropes even as he steamrollered on into a Distracting Yet Stern Lecture. Someone ought to explain to these men the travesty that they were about to subject the college and its heritage to, after all. He had until dawn and there was no reason to allow this chance to educate the masses (or even a small portion of them) to go to waste after all!
“Now then, gentlemen,” he clapped his hands – he was actually looking forward to this, he hadn’t given a proper lecture in years, “this chapel which you were intent on plundering like so many Viking raiders, though originally founded in the 1450s, was extensively remodelled into the form you see today during the mid-nineteenth century under the instruction of Sir William Hinchfield. Now this replaced an earlier remodelling occurring in the early eighteenth century, and largely seems to have been motivated by fashion, although it is also possible that the college wished to make a statement regarding…“
By the time Young Michael and his companions thought to try and run, the curtain ropes had wound themselves around all available limbs and torsos and needed only to pull tight to keep them immobilised. Richards didn’t even pause in his account of the events leading to the installation of new glass in the South Window.
“- in accordance with his wishes the design was based around the surviving glass from Pre-Reformation French Late-Gothic fashion. Not, in my opinion, really in keeping with the style of the rest of the chapel, but very fine in its craftsmanship nevertheless. Kindly cease and desist from struggling like that, Young Robert; if you injure yourself while in my custody I’m quite sure that I shall never hear the end of it from the Chaplain. Now you will note, I hope, since the sun is helpfully rising in the right direction, the inclusion of the lemon tree in the far-left corner there? By the mules’ – ahem – rear-portion? Yes? Do pay attention Young Stanley, you are Learning Something of Interest here. Now, this inclusion has been speculated to be allusion to –“
I’m trying something a bit different this week, with a two part story. Let me know if you like the extra plot and intrigue? If there’s enough enthusiasm I’ll try and do more of them.
New to the Ghosts & Gowns series? Catch up on all the fun here.
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…
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 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.’
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.
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.
‘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?’
‘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.’
‘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.