A Serviceable Villain
(with apologies to John Lennon & the Walrus).
Content warning: Strong language
‘No,’ groaned Professor Winston, ‘not Lewis Carroll.’
It was 7 on Tuesday morning and the sky was bright and blue outside. ‘Win’—as he was known to friends and enemies alike—was checking his diary. In previous years, he had carefully prepared every class. In this crisis year, he improvised, day-by-day.
First, Lewis fucking Carroll, then that degree ceremony.
Win reached for the kettle, his hands unthinkingly following their daily pattern. Water, kettle on, mug, spoon, instant coffee. Milk? No milk, as he’d forgotten to buy any. Sugar? Still no sugar. While the kettle boiled, he ran through options for his lecture. Lewis Carroll as paedophile? Probably true, but too complicated, too morbid, too difficult to prove. Carroll as hallucinogenic visionary? The caterpillar, the mushroom, those pills, the Mad Hatter… But it all seemed a bit obvious. Couldn’t make it last an hour. Carroll as critic of rationality? The chess game, the maths. Hmmm…
The kettle boiled. Hot water in the mug. Cornflakes? No cereal. More water in kettle, egg from fridge.
It’s not even as if I like boiled eggs! I’m living off the things.
Egg in kettle (still no saucepan). On-switch. An image of Humpty-Dumpty swam into Win’s mind: one enormous egg on a wall. Toast? No bread. Egg-cup? No egg-cup, just those bloody bowls. But the class: Lewis Carroll. What could he… Those poor, innocent oysters in Through the Looking Glass, seasoned with vinegar and pepper, then eaten with bread and butter. Looking round his tiny, dirty kitchen, Win realised he had no vinegar, no pepper, no bread and no butter.
Not even able to eat an oyster! Maybe Alice would’ve liked me.
Lewis Carroll as critic, as unmasker… Win told himself to buy some stuff for the kitchen on the way back, after the degree ceremony, but knew he’d forget. Nothing would happen until the divorce was settled with Janet. He didn’t blame her, he couldn’t blame her, it was a fair cop. For a second, he thought of breakfasts with Janet: peeled, cut oranges, muesli, toast (always wholemeal, sometimes home-made bread), croissants, honey, marmalade, moist strawberries, freshly-made coffee, waffles, pancakes, yoghurt… Cabbages and kings? Those were the days. All ended in one week of madness. Bitch, he muttered, but he couldn’t make it sound convincing.
A line from Alice in Wonderland floated into his mind: They were BOTH very unpleasant characters. Of course, Carroll was single: perverse fascination with young girls, yes, but no divorce problems.
Win slumped onto his discoloured armchair, then bashed his egg with a desert spoon. A gulp of black coffee (no milk, no sugar) dissipated his incipient hang-over. He’d move from this horrible flat after the divorce. Even with Janet’s settlement, he could afford something better. Happy un-birthday, he wished himself.
7:24, time to shower. As expected, the music student in the flat above him began her cello exercises. She would keep this up for an hour. Today she played a two-note exercise, a semitone apart, up and down, up and down. The musical equivalent of sarcasm, Win thought as he retreated to the shower with the controlled insanity of Radio 4’s Today. Yes, yes, Carroll the unmasker, he could work that into something.
9:36. Win was in his office, riffling through his battered copy of Through the Looking Glass, but his mind kept returning to the degree ceremony in the afternoon. Why did he hate these occasions so much? No, it wasn’t hate: the ceremonies made him nervous. He glanced at the second drawer down in his filing cabinet, the one with the bottle of vodka. It was something about the collectivity of the occasion that got to him: the assumption that they were all together, when obviously they weren’t. Normally he never drank vodka, but the ceremony—it was too much. His behaviour at these occasions had been noted: he was demoted from the rows of bright academics on the stage, to the mass of part-timers and temporary staff at the back of the hall. He stopped wearing his ceremonial gown: no one cared. Occasionally the Head of Faculty snarled at him to he look more cheerful.
He burped and tasted boiled egg in the back of his mouth. Ugh! I don’t even like eggs.
He underlined another sentence from Alice and smiled.
‘I like the Carpenter best,’ said Alice, ‘he didn’t eat so many as the Walrus.’
Yes. That was it. He could get an hour out of this, no problem.
Win missed lunch. Well, he missed his usual meat-and-two-veg, followed by pudding, custard and strong tea, but he substituted some fermented cereal grains in liquid form. By the third glass, he decided he didn’t like vodka, but the thought of the coachloads of cheerful students, full of pride in their ill-fitting suits or unsuitable dresses, waving at their parents and punching the air with self-conscious glee drove him to pour a fourth glass. Back it went: the alcohol surged through him. For a second, he was ready for anything. Then, to his surprise, his eyes filled with tears. He wiped them away with an old handkerchief, thinking of the Walrus’s streaming eyes.
He checked the time, stood up, lurched to the left, then walked out into the summer sunshine. It was a few steps to the main hall. Win nodded meaninglessly to the smiling policeman by the entrance, then took his place with the reprobates, has-beens, wannabees and passing-throughs at the back of the hall.
The ceremony was as bad as he’d feared. After a few minutes, he gave up pretending to clap, gave up keeping track of the fresh-faced youngsters enjoying their two-and-a-half seconds of glory, gave up searching for his favourite students (were there any?) and stared at the ceiling. Once again, his eyes filled with tears. This was embarrassing: he was as bad as the mums! The surges of clapping came and went like waves on a shore. Time passed.
Win was outside the hall, in the stuffy marquee, surrounded by loud, exuberant and slightly drunk students, who greeted him like an old friend.
‘Win!’ they called to him. ‘Win! Over here.’
Someone tugged at his arm and then he was sitting among them. Looking around, he thought he recognised one or two faces. A girl pulled a bulging over-night bag closer to her and searched inside it. Wasn’t she Alice? Or—was that this morning’s class? The contents of her bag spilled out: a folder, a pair of track shoes, a black T-shirt, a pair of knickers.
‘Ooh, Win,’ laughed the student. ‘I’m flashing my knicks at you!’
The students fell into peals of laughter and her bon mot was repeated. Tears came into Win’s eyes: he blinked them away. Alice passed a little tin to a friend. Seconds later a spliff circulated, the students jokingly holding it down and casting melodramatic glances round them. No one paid them any attention: the marquee was full of gushing excitement, proud, cheerful, embarrassed parents, shouts of mirth, bubbling conversation.
‘Here you go, Win,’ said one of the students. ‘Try some of this.’
Win inhaled deeply: the pungent smoke hit the back of his throat and filled his lungs. He held it for a moment, then exhaled, catching just a whiff of boiled egg as he did. He felt momentarily stronger and clearer, and worried whether the Head of Faculty was watching. The spliff circulated, the students laughed, shouted and joked. Win realised that time had moved on and he had to go. But where?
Win was in a bad way. The road seemed familiar, but the tears in his eyes blurred his vision. It was dark. Was this the way to the tower? Or the bus stop? He collapsed in the entrance of an electrical goods store. There were rows of television screens in the window, each with minutely different shades of grey and green, all telling the story of a sex scandal in a convent. Win looked at the screens, bewildered by their divergences and tried to understand the story they told. He felt sleepy. Maybe he did sleep.
The student was there: was she Alice?
‘Professor Winston!’ she exclaimed. ‘What are you doing there?’
‘I could say the same to you, young woman,’ he replied with a firmness that surprised him.
Something in his tone caught her off-guard. She answered defensively: ‘I’ve been to a party. Now I’m going home.’ She looked at him more closely. ‘But at least I can walk.’
Win was silent, his eloquence exhausted.
‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Let’s get you back home. We can cut through the park.’
She pulled him up. As they emerged from the shop entrance, Win was surprised to see the sky growing pink.
He half-limped, half-walked down the high street, leaning on Alice.
‘You don’t like degree ceremonies, do you Win?’
He hadn’t the strength to answer. He recognised the route she was taking: out from the concrete paving slabs, into the cool green of the early morning park. He took a deep breath, enjoying the smell of the trees.
‘Do you think we’ll see a grinning Cheshire cat?’ he asked.
‘Don’t be silly, Win.’
They walked through an ornamental garden with a dark ring of green bushes wet with dew and a single white statue standing proud in the centre.
‘Good old Edmund, Earl of Gloster,’ murmured Alice.
‘I was teaching the students Lewis Carroll this morning,’ said Win, just for the sake of saying something.
‘I remember, you taught that last year.’ Alice smiled. ‘And did you terrify them with the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter, like you did us?’
‘I try to challenge them.’
‘Of course, you do. Look, here’s a bench. Why don’t you sit down and rest? I know a place that’s open. I’ll get you a coffee.’
‘Make it a tea. Strong, plenty of milk and two sugars.’
Win sat on the bench under the tree and gazed at the ornamental garden. There was a brief shower, but the branches protected him from the rain. He enjoyed the smell of the clean, damp air and the trees around him.
He thought about the ‘Victorian Fantasies’ course: Richard Dadd and Aubrey Beardsley, Lewis Carroll and Mary Shelley, William Morris and Edgar Allan Poe… He pictured them in a row, stretching over the park lawn, dancing to get the students’ attention. And what was he: the dance-master? What good were these writers to the students? Wouldn’t it be better to teach them how to download a ring-tone? The chorus of laughter that had greeted Alice’s knickers came back to him and went around and around in his mind.
But it was an exchange, wasn’t it? He gave his thoughts to Alice, she came back with tea for him. He fell asleep.
Sharif Gemie is a retired History professor living in Newport. He is currently writing a historical novel set among UN aid-workers in Germany, 1945-46. He has been writing fiction for three years. He is an in-house author for ASP publishing and has been published in both academic & literary circles, including: Storgy; Magazine of History & Fiction; Cecile's Writers; Fiction on the Web.