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…

Ch.5 - The Problem with Ghosts - small

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.

Ch.4 - A Crisis of Faith - small

‘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.

Posted in Ghosts & Gowns, Short Stories

The Joys and Hardships of Life After Death

It’s October! My favourite month of the year! Not only because it’s my birthday this month, but it ends with Halloween! Ooooooooooooo!

So, in celebration of the spooktacular shenanigans to come, I’m doing a solid month of Ghosts and Gowns! Enjoy!

Ch.3 - The Joys and Hardships of Life After Death - small

Professor Richards, Master of Devon College despite having ceased to breathe some three days ago, had found that there were several benefits for life after death.

You didn’t need to sleep, so there was far more time to Converse with people and Discuss Matters. He now had the opportunity to finally attend all those meetings he had previously had to miss owing to their unfortunate tendency to clash with his Afternoon Nap. On reflection, Richards wasn’t entirely sure that his presence at these meetings was completely welcomed by his colleagues who seemed to have been cooking up all sorts of outlandish plans in his absence but that only proved that he was an Invaluable Aid to them in their Troubled Times.

Another benefit was that since the dead were not known for their correspondence with the living, Richards had been able to drop any number of Disagreeable Acquaintances. Margaret, his treasure of an assistant, had frowned at him over her glasses when he had insisted she write to certain people with the Sad News of his Passing.

‘Professor! You can’t ask me to do that!’

‘And why on earth not?’

‘You aren’t all that dead, Professor, are you? Certainly not so much as to cut all ties with them.’

‘I don’t see why we can’t stretch the truth just a tiny bit, Margaret! It isn’t as if you like answering the phone to them either!’

Margaret’s mouth twisted in that way she had when she knew she was beaten but intended to continue her stance as the Lone Defender of a Higher Standard of Professionalism in the office. Richards allowed himself to look just a little pleading at her.

‘It’s not as though we don’t have enough to do either, is it? No harm in cutting back a little, slowing down and such, eh?’

At this Margaret sighed in exasperation, looking over her blue-rimmed glasses at him as if he were a small boy rather than a man three decades her senior. Richards was always gratified to see spirit in those who had to keep him on the Straight And Narrow; it was good to see she wasn’t letting him down now he was in an Alternative State of Health.

‘Professor Horace Richards, you have never slowed down a day of your life. And don’t think you’re going to get away with this excuse every time you want to get out of anything either.’

Richards went to float through the wall to startle the Bursar’s assistant; she was much more likely to give him his way these days if it got him out of her office. Richards suspected her of having a spiritual bent, and was making the most of it until Margaret found out…

*

Nevertheless, Richards had to admit to himself later that day, there were a few downsides to his New Existence, and they almost all sprang from his sad tendency to pass through any and all solid matter he encountered. The result was that he was currently unable to do his research as he could neither hold his books nor turn their pages. He could do no paperwork either, which Richards had been momentarily pleased about for the first day until he realised that failing to actually do his job certainly would be grounds to remove him from it and there went his Entire Purpose in Life.

Margaret had refused – preemptively – utterly and completely to turn his pages for him throughout the day, although Richards did hasten to state that he had certainly not asked her to do Any Such Thing.

‘I should just like to make sure we are clear on this point, Professor.’ The Raised Eyebrow of Disapprobation was threatening, Richards could sense it. He resisted the urge to hide in the fireplace, but made a point of keeping out of her sight for the rest of the morning.

Although really, now that Richards thought about the Humiliation of having Margaret sit beside him and turn pages for hours on end, he veritably shuddered. Humph. As if Richards had need of such Pandering! What a thought!

Although speaking of Margaret, this reminded him…

He silently floated out of his office and into hers.

‘Can I help you, Professor?’

She always seemed to sense when he was there – he had not ascertained how she managed this yet, but he certainly intended too. What was the point of being a ghost if you were unable to frighten people At Will? The college Needed to Know if Margaret even could be scared; there were discoveries at stake here!

Richards came to an abrupt halt as Margaret skewered him with the probing stare of an especially patient predator. He gulped.

‘Ah. Margaret. Yes.’

Margaret simply waited, looking at him over the rims of those infernal glasses.

‘Margaret…’ He began and then wondered how to articulate what had been worrying him. It would not do to simply Kick the Hornets’ Nest, now would it? (Margaret could never be allowed to find that he had applied such a metaphor to herself…)

 ‘Yes, Professor?’ She prompted after a pause.

‘You see, I have been thinking…’

‘Yes, Professor?’

‘Well, I think you have noticed that I am currently experiencing some… well, entirely temporary, of course, no question about it and such, but still… I am finding it harder to sign things and such. You may have noticed?’ He paused in his recitation to the upper corner of the office ceiling; there was a water mark in the shape of some continent that did not yet exist.

Margaret nodded when he caught her eye and looked both quietly sympathetic and of course entirely too professional to experience such emotions. Good woman.

‘Anyway Margaret, I have noticed that while the last three days have been a welcome break from the daily grind of the office and such, I cannot imagine how the place has not yet come crashing down around the old ears without me! I would hope that you would alert me should the Bursar finally have Seized the Moment for his planned coup, would you not?’

There was a moment of silence and Richards tried hard not to visibly adopt a defensive stance. However, rather than eviscerating his spectral form for the suggestion that Margaret were not fully capable of defending her Master of House from Bursorial Hostilities, as Richards had feared, Margaret only smiled at him, looking almost fond. And exasperated. Mostly fond though.

He hoped.

Richards must have caught her in a Moment of Weakness. He should treasure the memory for later.

‘There is no trouble, Professor. I have been signing your papers and such and there’s no College meetings until term starts in October after all. I can assure you that the Bursar has no notion that you are not functioning at exactly the same capacity as always, despite your recent transition.’

You’ve been signing my papers?’ Richards was incredulous! Mutiny in his own office! His own college! Under his very nose indeed!

Margaret flashed him a Quelling Look. ‘Not so loud, Professor, honestly someone will hear. It is indistinguishable from your signature after all. I should think that you would rather Questions were Not Asked, don’t you agree?’

Richards paused in his next statement of outrage at this. ‘Do you mean that- that you have been forging my signature?’ He whispered this last, as he Had Suspicions that Margaret had Ways of trapping unwary spirits. It was the sort of thing she was Likely to Know.

Margaret favoured Richards with one long look of Profound Patience.

‘Do you remember, Professor, that term when you had all those appointment panels to chair and the letters and contracts and such were building up in your in-tray because you had that paper to submit.’

‘I certainly should say that I do! Utterly tedious business…’

Margaret cut him off before he could reiterate his Full Thoughts on the Matter.

Yes, Professor, precisely. And then several people thought they must not really have been offered the job and we might have had to offer them to other candidates. And it seemed altogether easier to simply sign them for you to get it over and done with. So I did.’

Richards thought about this some more.

‘Do I want to know when you learned to forge my signature?’

Margaret just smiled and shooed him out of her office without another word.

Really, Richard thought, on consideration he would be Quite Lost without Margaret and her terrifying bank of skills, he really would.

*

But the original problem remained, Richards knew; there was really no getting away from it in the end.

Margaret was a Treasure, no doubt about that, but Richards had No Intention of being helpless for the rest of his (possibly limitless) days. He Really Must find a solution to this troublesome Insubstantiality Business.

Richards contemplated his office for a moment before settling his eyes on the papers which Margaret had placed on the central table the day before his Passing Over. The papers sheets were light enough that they would surely make a good starting-point. Richards mentally rolled his sleeves up and straightened his shoulders. He could do this. He must!

*

Margaret walked in to his office several hours later and stopped abruptly in the doorway. She silently regarded the flock of paper sheets swirling around Richards as he stood feeling Very Accomplished. He could now flip the pages in his books and move his pens to write (still a bit shaky but Improvement Would Come) but he had wanted to put on a proper show for his assistant.

Margaret’s lips twitched in a rare smile before she raised one slim eyebrow. ‘If you have destroyed my carefully organised system, Professor, I warned you that I shall not be responsible for my actions.’

Richards beamed at her without Undue Concern. She appeared to relax slightly in the face of his confidence. Good Woman.

‘Margaret! I am wounded! Wounded! That you would accuse me of such Tomfoolery! Indeed I am! Everything shall be as you left it in but a moment, I will have you know!’

And so saying, he waved one hand (although he was not yet certain if this had any impact – it added that Certain Style) and the papers whirled together, stacking themselves neatly in their original order before coming to rest gently on the table. Richards withheld a breath of relief – he had held a few doubts of that working. It was always gratifying to be successful in front of an audience.

Margaret was far too professional to do anything so emotive as roll her eyes in the manner of an undergraduate, and therefore she simply nodded.

‘See that you do, Professor.’

And then she left swiftly and without saying a word; she’d possibly seen the way Richards was eyeing up the bicycle in the corner. Margaret always had good instincts like that.

Now then… Richards flexed his fingers and got started. If he was quick enough to master moving objects from a distance the Bursar wouldn’t know what hit him…

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Posted in Ghosts & Gowns, Short Stories

Reactions

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

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The first person to encounter Richards in his Alternative State of Health was naturally his assistant, Margaret. Margaret was of indefinite age, and decidedly definite personality. She reminded everyone of their dearly beloved mother, regardless of the age of the fellow in question. Black-and-silver hair pulled up into a neat knot at the back, the kind of slender figure which brought to mind assassins’ knives instead of willows’ branches and the stately bearing of a queen who had undoubtedly murdered her husband to rule the kingdom but is doing so well at it that no one is inclined to mention it.

Richards assumed that she was in possession of a surname, but Margaret had come with the College and had been introduced as such. Richards had once tried to ask for his assistant’s full name but had retreated rapidly into his office to get away from the Silence she menaced him with.

If Richards were to be Entirely Honest that first morning as he came down for work, he might have admitted to a secret thrill of excitement. Margaret was one of those calm and confident persons who had worked in the eccentric realm of Oxford’s colleges for so long that nothing surprised or inconvenienced her. Richards had tried on occasion but had failed entirely and the resulting punishment of extra meetings or paperwork which she would ordinarily have screened and sent away had soon rendered further efforts unpalatable. This time however, Richards was in possession of a situation even Margaret would not have seen coming…

‘Good Morning, Professor Richards.’ Margaret didn’t even look up from her screen, despite Richards having strolled through her wall rather than her door.

Perhaps she had not noticed yet? Although how she would know he was there when he was now as silent as the, ah, grave… Well, nothing for it but to press on!

‘Good Morning, Margaret. I wonder if you might be able to move some of my meetings this morning until later in the week, as a Matter of Some Importance has arisen over night?’

‘Of course, Professor.’ At this, Margaret looked up but no matter how closely Richards looked, not even a flicker of shock passed through her eyes. ‘Will you be wanting to keep your meeting with the Bursar at ten however?’

Richards waited for a moment to see if the realisation would dawn. Nothing.

‘Yes,’ he said slowly, wondering if he should bring it up. ‘I think that would be best, although if you could warn him that much of his planned agenda with have to remain undealt with as we consider Other Matters?’

‘Of course, Professor.’ Margaret looked back to her screen, her fingers already typing the message. ‘And will you be wishing for me to hold your calls as well?’

She has to have noticed, Richards thought to himself. There was no way she hadn’t realised Richards’ somewhat transparent appearance, his suit (Richards had put a lot of concentration into altering his clothes from his nightwear to his day suit. He didn’t care if the dead ought to appear as they had when Death had intruded upon them; Horace Richards Did Not Appear to others in his Nightwear!) was a far more faint shade of grey than was usual and his tie was likewise faded.

But what if Margaret had not realised that she was speaking to a ghost? Richards considered her green-rimmed glasses instead of the piercing silver eyes behind them. He felt a bit at a loss. It was probably more polite to say one was dead than leave someone in the dark, wasn’t it? But how did one break such news gently?

Margaret continued to type as her eyes peered sternly over the tops of her glasses. ‘Professor?’

Richards jumped; that was probably undignified in a Person of Alternative Health, he ought not to Bring Disgrace unto the Community. ‘Oh! Yes!’ He coughed and tried not to shuffle his feet, hovering as they were an inch or so above the carpet. ‘Yes, that would be most helpful if you could. Hold my calls, that is.’

Margaret released him from her gaze, answer successfully extracted. ‘Very well, Professor.’

Richards suspected he had Been Dismissed, but he was sure this ought to be The Moment to confide in her. ‘Margaret…’ he began but got no further.

His assistant looked up once more, this time a touch of impatience lurking in the corners of her steely gaze. ‘Professor Richards. You have something else to discuss?’

Horace Richards, Master of Devon College, had been seventy-three at the moment of his death, had fought in two wars and had braved interviews, doctoral vivas and hostile conference audiences. He shrank from his assistant’s Look.

‘No, Margaret; that will be all.’ He mumbled into his tie like a schoolboy.

Margaret, assured that she would have the peace of her office restored imminently, favoured him with a small look of Approval. ‘Wonderful.’

‘And Professor?’ She added as Richards tried to discreetly float through the next wall and into his own office without Margaret noticing now that he had muffed his announcement. ‘I trust that you would like your,’ she paused to consider her phrasing, ‘more solid form disposed of? Would you prefer for a college-based funeral for colleagues only, or a public announcement?’

Richards shook his head to himself, ruefully. Of course the blasted woman wouldn’t be shaken by a spectre of death entering her office. He ought to have known…

*

The first thing the Bursar did as he bustled through the door to the Master’s Office was to ignore Margaret’s gentle cough of warning. This was his first mistake and Richards felt that he deserved every moment of what came next.

One ignored Margaret At One’s Peril.

‘Master, it really is entirely impossible for us not to speak to every item on this agenda, I am sorry. Whatever it is that you wish to speak to me about must simply take its turn alongside other College Business.’

He was too busy consulting his list and adjusting his glasses as they threatened to slip down his beak-like nose. He was a tall man with the face of some primordial eagle, his hair thinned out of all existence and his hook-like fingers grasped an enormously thick sheaf of papers to his heaving chest.

Richards coughed gently, wishing to draw the man’s gaze before he insisted that some items would absolutely have to wait.

The Bursar finally looked up, blinking for a second before proceeding to drop every sheet of the bundle of papers he was clutching. There was a beat of silence before, just as Richards opened his mouth to begin speaking, the Bursar let out a ragged scream, turned on his heel and pelted from the room, slamming the door behind him as though this would impede Richards from following him.

Richards could hear him start to splutter to Margaret that there was- did she see- there was actually- had she known? Although he could not make out Margaret’s reply, he certainly recognised her Tone as a combined and potent mixture of ‘You Have Displeased Me Mightily’ and ‘You Are Not So Senior That I Cannot Reduce You To Tears’. As much fun as it would be to watch somebody else be on the receiving end of an irate Margaret, he decided that remaining where he sat was the better part of valour on this occasion.

Not that he was intimidated or anything. He didn’t wish to draw her fire by interrupting her mid-flow!

When the Bursar returned, looking pale and shaken and shame-faced, Richards simply could not restrain himself, and so patted him consolingly on the shoulder. ‘I do hope that she wasn’t too harsh on you, old boy?’

The Bursar nearly flinched as Richards’ ghostly hand touched him, but caught himself and held resolutely still.

‘I believe that she was concerned that I would give you cause to be self-conscious about your …’ He trailed off as he looked again at Richards’ floating spectre, flailing a little in place of an end to his sentence.

Richards felt a little glow of Emotion warm through himself. He didn’t realise Margaret cared so.

‘How very kind of her! I, ah, I had not considered my long-term feelings on the matter, but it is always nice to be thought of.’ He paused and considered the Broken Man in his arm chair. Perhaps speaking of paperwork would bring some relief for the Bursar’s state of shock? ‘I have taken to referring to this whole business as my Alternative State of Health, Bursar, if you could see your way to incorporating that into your paperwork?’

The Bursar made what was evidently a great effort to pull himself together and nodded his head.

‘Naturally.’ He looked at Richards over his glasses as they slipped down his nose again. ‘Margaret is very protective of you, Master. She has been Impressed by your performance at the college and will be Most Pleased that she will be able to keep you now.’

Richards nodded solemnly. ‘Margaret’s approval is a high accolade.’

The moment of shared understanding now being at an end, the Bursar shifted as if ruffling his non-existent primeval feathers.

‘Now really, Master! We Really Must speak about the dreadful amount of trouble this may bring to the college. It is Most Unorthodox. Inconvenient as it is for you to die in an untimely manner before the end of your contract, I really must protest at you taking matters into your own hands like this.’

He paused for a moment, as though considering an idea which had only just occurred to him. ‘Although come to think of it, I suppose this could be seen as a very economical solution to for the College to not have to replace the Master every eight years or so.’ He glowered at Richards sharply. ‘Have you any idea of how much those Head-Hunting companies charge? I remember what the last lot cost! And the interview costs!’ The Bursar all but shuddered at the very thought.

Richards smiled to himself as he Marshalled his Arguments. It was reassuring to be back to back to normal.

*

‘Did you read the paper, Terry? Old Horace Richards has died!’

Professor Terrence Johnson sat down heavily into the rich veleveteen depths of the Senior Common Room armchair and stared at his friend.

‘What’s that? Richards dead? When did this happen?’

Dr Karl Bosko leaned forward, eager to be the bearer of new information to a colleague whose connections and penchant for gossip meant that he had usually had the story long before Karl could tell him.

‘Last Sunday night I heard, in his sleep, poor devil. Peaceful way to go, but he was so full of life and whatnot…’

He trailed off as Johnson was shaking his head in a very decided manner.

‘Oh balderdash, Bosko! If you’re going to try your hand at gossiping, you must learn not to mix people up and make an absolute hash of the whole business!’

Karl frowned, stung by his friend’s vehemence.

‘How’d you mean, not mixing people up? The paper said Professor Horace Richards, Master of Devon College! I’d like to know how many others you know answering to that title!’

At this pronouncement Terry Johnson looked momentarily abashed, and Karl thought for a moment that he had won the point.

‘Really now? I say, I am sorry about snapping then, Karl, I really am! Not your fault that papers these days can’t fact check anything properly.’

Karl had a feeling that this conversation was about to go completely off course again…

‘You don’t consider it possible that Richards could be dead then?’

Terry gave his friend a grandfatherly look, which Karl would have objected to from a man not five years his senior, but all such thoughts ended with the next sentence.

‘I shouldn’t think so, what with him just having finished chairing the Development Panel meeting before lunch! I know papers are getting their stories out damn quick, but I still think this is pushing the envelope!’

Karl laughed with him at the mistake, glad that at the very least the error was not his own. When they calmed, Johnson looked thoughtfully out of the window and commented,

‘Mind you, I shouldn’t wonder that the old boy ought to start cutting back a bit on all his activites; he didn’t look at all well this morning.’

‘No?’

‘Not at all! White as a sheet and as fragile looking you’d think you could walk right through him! Fellow needs to slow down at his time of life or he really will end up as a notice in the paper!’

*

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Posted in Ghosts & Gowns, Short Stories

Life is Compulsory, Death is Optional

Professor Richards, Master of Devon College, knew he was dead when he woke up and found Death sitting by his bedside.

‘Well, I must say! This is entirely too inconvenient, you know? Very ill-timed indeed.’

And yet, I am afraid I must offer you the report of your own death, Horace Richards.

Death turned its head towards him. It was hard to make out its features, Richards thought to himself; not because it was shrouded in shadows or hoods or anything so overly-dramatic. It was simply as if one’s eyes refused to discern anything at all about the face save the knowledge that Death did indeed have one. Richards had been the youngest professor in his field back in the day, had changed the whole course of his colleagues’ thinking, had all but invented several systems of future discovery-making, and he most certainly had not lived so long and risen so well through troubling himself by arguing with Nature. Natural way of things and whatnot.

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Still…

Well really! It is not as if Richards was not a busy man with Much To Do, after all! And it was not as though Richards had any great plans for his afterlife.

Others, Richards knew, longed to see loved ones again, to be rewarded for a life they considered to have been well-spent (although Richards had his personal doubts for some of them) for rebirth or eternal peace. But Richards had no loved ones to pine for, no interest in any life other than this one and no desire to have any force on earth yank his toils and tribulations from his hands under the guise of rewarding him for performing them well. Richards knew the true reward for good service was further service and for once he was going to demand precisely what he wanted!

‘No, no, I really must protest about this! There shall be no dying for me, I’m afraid. Not today at least.’

I am not quite sure I understand your meaning, Horace Richards. All things must come to an end and whatnot, as you say. It is time.

‘Nonsense! I have far too much to be doing! We’ve that new idea to remodel the Dining Hall to be stamped out, and the governance procedures need looking at and if I were to bugger off to the afterlife now, the Bursar would sweep all my ideas under the carpet and keep doing things like they’ve always been done. Badly, I mean. They’ve been done very badly.’ Richards drew himself up as he lent against his pillows – he really ought to have risen from the bed for this discussion, on reflection, beds were not where the Great Battles were Won – and looked Death as squarely in the face as one can when one cannot, in fact, look Death in the face at all. ‘I am sorry to cause you bother and all, and no doubt you will suffer Paperwork or some such. However, I must absolutely refuse to go with you today.’

Death paused and took in the small man in front of him. You are dead, Horace Richards. You cannot go back to being one of the living. Your life is at an end-

Death got no further.

‘Well, that’s merely a technicality, is what I call it! A technical technicality indeed! One doesn’t need to be alive to run a college you know? Certainly not this one!’

Death was clearly still trying to work this one out. My understanding is that one vacates one’s job after death, does one not, Horace Richards?

Richards waved a hand dismissively. ‘Balderdash and piffle, my dear fellow! Balderdash and piffle is what I calls that! Oh I dare say that used to be compulsory and whatnot, but these days! These days they have all these useful rules, very good ones, I must say, I wrote some of them myself, you know? Anti-discrimination laws and such.’

I did know, Horace Richards, but I must confess –

‘Quite! I expect you’re the sort to Know All Sorts of Things, are you not?’ Richards decided that since he was dead the Laws of Physics were entirely optional and drifted up through the covers to float across the room and back with Great Speed and Vigour! ‘Exactly the thing, what? Regardless! I say that if they can’t make a fellow (or fellowess, indeed, I should not exclude my Valued Colleagues in These Matters) retire on account of one’s age I say that they can’t throw a fellow (or fellowess, as I have mentioned) out for being dead! Not if they don’t wish to, anyway. And I don’t wish. I have far too much to do. No slacking off, even in these extremes!’

Death sighed. Being an intangible being of purely metaphorical existence, this ought not to have been possible, or required, but Death was sensing that a man who had lived his entire life and made his career and his fortune entirely based on arguing other people into submission was likely not to be swayed from this course of action.

If you truly wish to continue as you are, I suppose there is no rule to prevent it…

‘Splendid!’

Do not think that I will come to help you if this goes badly, however.

Richards stopped his pacing and turned to give Death an Outraged Look. ‘My dear fellow! I should like to think that of all people, you would be one I could trust to know that I have never needed the assistance of anyone in my whole life! No matter what straights I might find myself to be in!’

Death bowed its head. I wished merely to ensure that we understood one another-

‘Good day sir or madam! To think that Death itself would think I should require assistance in merely continuing to live my life as usual…’

He turned back to his pacing as he muttered, grumbling still further when he found that his hand floated through the papers on his desk.

Death gave sighing another go, decided it liked the action, and left the room. It had Other Places To Be after all…