Just that morning, I had found a tiny hole on my black merino turtleneck. As I pulled it over my head, a pinhole of light shone through. I discarded it on my bed where it landed on Humphrey who, in deep sleep, opened one eye at me and twitched his tail, unimpressed with his dreams being interrupted. I tried a second turtleneck. This time there was a hole on the hem. I considered that it would be tucked into my trousers and hidden but I knew I wouldn’t last the day knowing I was wearing defective clothing. I would feel unkempt, ragged. Moths, I wondered, looking around for evidence. But there was no sign of fluttering wings or sticky webbing. I pulled a shirt from my wardrobe and inspected the knife edges of the collar and tails.
Now in my office I had five minutes before the meeting. I’d turned on my computer as soon as I arrived and opened my internet browser. I had five new black merino turtlenecks in my cart. The thought of coming home to new garments smelling of wool and plastic was pleasing, calming. I clicked through to the next screen to check out when there was a knock on the door. I sighed as I minimised the internet browser and reached for the pile of essays on my desk, rustled the papers. I coughed a little to test my voice. ‘Come in,’ I said. The door opened slowly and the Professor Emeritus stepped into my office.
‘It’s time for our meeting,’ he said. He held his hand out towards me. His hand was pale, his fingers long and skinny, white hairs crowning the knuckles. I wondered if I might hold it. Was it an invitation? Was he going to escort me to the meeting? Those thin fingers keeping a tight grip on my wrist.
‘John,’ said the Professor Emeritus, as he stepped closer to me, his eyes wide in the dull dusty light of my office. ‘John, are you ok? You look pale.’
‘Just a little tired, Stuart,’ I said.
‘Not sleeping well, John?’ His eyes were dark with concern.
‘I was awake at 3am, thinking about cleaning products,’ I replied. That seemed a satisfactory answer, one that should elevate me in the eyes of the professor. Cleanliness is next to godliness after all and it was true, I had spent some hours awake in the night worrying that the spray I’d used to clean my bathroom was inadequate, that germs still lurked, bred and multiplied on the porcelain surfaces. He raised his eyebrows, then turned away from me and I followed him through the door.
The corridor was still pungent with the strong musky scent. The Professor Emeritus turned his head towards the source, Elizabeth’s door. He wrinkled his nose. ‘Smells like a bad valet job in here,’ he said. The smell had been there for weeks. It was noticed by Elizabeth a day before I’d been told the Professor Emeritus would attend meetings with me. The smell was in fact cheap aftershave. I thought about Giles running down the corridor holding the open bottle, stopping outside Elizabeth’s office to splash the vulgar-smelling perfume on her door, then watching it drip onto the carpet. The thought made me lift the corners of my mouth for just a moment.
In the meeting room we found a full turnout of the faculty. From my department, the four professors of religious studies and two tutors. I nodded at Jerome, then lifted my eyebrows at Elizabeth. She moved a muscle in her cheek but stared straight ahead. She was solid, inert in her chair. Her grey plait lying flat over her shoulder as she stared at the doorway. We were as always outnumbered by the History Department. Not for much longer perhaps with all being in various stages of decay. Tom’s cheeks crumbled into his beard. Janet was upright and as grey as steel, cold too. Mignon, not blonde and coiffured like her name suggested. I didn’t even bother looking at the Classical Studies Department. More than once I had pontificated on the irrelevance of the subject and the irrelevant people who taught it. Then there was my dearest friend Giles on the other side of the table, my right-hand man, my prodigy, conspirer, my partner in crime. He was wearing a suit today, the black lines against the white of the shirt as clean and symmetrical as a Mondrian. Giles gave me the smallest of smiles as I followed the Professor Emeritus into the room, then started sorting the papers in front of him like a pack of cards. I couldn’t think when I had last spoken to him. Last week? The week before? Maybe three weeks ago. It seemed a long time. He didn’t meet my eyes again. The seats on either side of him were occupied but on the other side of the table there were two empty seats, next to each other. A seat for me, a seat for the Professor Emeritus, my minder.
The Head of School turned to look at the group and opened the meeting. He announced the appointment of the Acting Head of Religious Studies for the following year. A foregone conclusion, Elizabeth. I could see the beginnings of her smile, a tiny snake curled in the snake charmer’s basket. I shifted in my seat, leaning forward. I could feel the hinges of my mouth creaking as it opened. There was something that needed to be said, words I should let out. I felt the Professor Emeritus move in his chair, then without looking at me he moved his hand towards me and laid it on my arm. There it was again, pale, the tiny light hairs. I focused on his fingernails as I closed my mouth. They were clean, long, the moons tiny and pink, he probably filed his nails like I did, used a good moisturiser. His hands were clean like mine; he would certainly use antibacterial soap.
Nobody ever said how long the arrangement would last. They said I needed someone to help me in meetings, to keep me calm, on track. The Professor Emeritus was considered the only person I’d tolerate, his distinguished position one I respected, his calmness a natural regulator. Regulate was the word the Head of School had used when he had announced the new arrangement. I sat there, pondering it, silently moving it around my mouth, chewing the vowels, re-gu-late. I didn’t feel unregulated; when I spoke I needed to, the words there to be let out. There were things I needed to say and it was important I said them. The urge to speak would ferret around in my throat, sharp teeth gnawing until my tongue moved and the words were said.
The meeting had finished. The Professor Emeritus sat with me at the table and although he had long ago lifted his hand from my arm I felt I couldn’t leave the room without him. The room emptied. I flinched as Elizabeth flicked her plait over her shoulder as she walked past my chair. I’d read that hair is very dirty. When compared in a laboratory, hair grew more bacteria in a petri dish than did a swab from a toilet. I imagined blue and brown cells dividing, multiplying like mushrooms; I felt sick.
The Professor Emeritus looked at me and said, ‘How about we go for a drink?’ I nodded. This felt less like being watched, more like comradeship. Two men, each eminent in their field, drinking fine wine and discussing their current research interests and maybe the other members of the department and their peculiarities.
We went to the bar across the road and sat in the garden. While I was washing my hands the Professor Emeritus ordered. I cringed when the waiter announced the arrival of the wine—Pinot Noir. The smell of the overly fruity and acidic New Zealand wine stung my nostrils. My eyes watered. I opened my mouth, the words there, ready to explain the mistake but the Professor Emeritus lifted his glass to his lips. A bit of pink tongue poked out from his mouth like a cat as he closed his eyes and inhaled the scent, then sipped. I did the same. My mouth watering with the sting of the assault on my palate.
He placed the glass on the coaster. His mouth didn’t curl up with the hit of the chalky acid as mine had; instead, there was contentment. Then he looked at me, crossing his elegant hands in front of him. ‘John, I know you’ve been working very hard over the last few months but it’s become apparent to myself and some of the other professors that you may need a break.’
‘A break?’ I asked.
‘Yes, we could say an early sabbatical.’
‘A sabbatical?’ The word was as vinegary as the wine.
‘Yes, a year, full pay, to pursue your research interests. I assume you have some of those.’
‘Oh yes,’ I said thinking of Rome, the cafes off the main tourist drag, the full flavour of the Italian wine.
‘But I was planning to teach the Gnostics,’ I said.
‘Your new paper is scheduled for next year,’ the professor agreed, ‘but there has been very little interest in it.’
‘But my students,’ I said. I thought of Giles in his last year of his PhD, my prize student, the most popular tutor in the humanities department three years running. It would be wrong to abandon him.
‘Giles is leaving, you know,’ the Professor Emeritus interrupted.
‘He is?’ I asked, my voice a whisper.
‘Yes, he has a position at another university. He’ll finish his doctorate there.’
‘But he didn’t mention it to me, his supervision,’ I interrupted.
‘Giles asked us to keep the news quiet, but someone suitable to supervise him has been found,’ he continued.
I was suddenly aware of my nose. It felt like ice. I touched my finger tip to it. I felt almost numb with the ache of the cold. My lungs felt like gravel.
‘My new student, Sarah, has a very exciting proposal’ I said.
‘Sarah has been spoken to,’ he said. ‘She’s decided to focus her research interests elsewhere.’
All my reasons for staying spent, I looked at him. ‘I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘I’m not due for a sabbatical for another four years.’
‘Let’s say, recent events have made the need for you to have a break quite clear,’ he said.
‘John,’ he said, rubbing the tips of his fingers together, his voice lower, ‘there’s been a complaint.’
‘A complaint?’ I asked. Was it Elizabeth? Would she really make a formal complaint over the enduring smell of cologne outside her office? And how would she know I was involved? Had Giles confessed?
‘Is it related to the smell?’ I asked Stuart.
The Professor Emeritus looked at me surprised. ‘The smell, John?’ He scratched at his chin with his index finger. ‘John, it’s not really my place but can I suggest you talk to your doctor about the thoughts you’ve been having about smells and, ah, cleaning products?’
I felt the overwhelming and inappropriate need to laugh. I ignored the giggles bubbling up my sternum and asked, ‘Who made the complaint?’
‘A student. I can’t say much more as it’s under investigation. We’ll be asking for your side of the story soon, of course.’
I thought for a moment, a memory of the second day it snowed this year, a student unwinding her scarf from her neck in the lecture theatre. Giles looking at me, shaking his head from the side of the lectern. The sound of the girl’s footsteps on the polished lino as she strode away down the corridor. The soft flakes of snow fluttering outside, settling on my hair, the black shoulders of my merino jumper as I watched the back of her figure disappear into the grey landscape of snow and footpath. I looked into the plummy puddle of red wine. ‘I wouldn’t mind a break,’ I said.
Back in my office I found the items had disappeared from my cart. I flicked off the screen and the lights and sat at my desk until it was dark. Then I went home.