A young woman lanced past on a bicycle, hugging the curb, which caused the Professor to jump slightly. No more than a handful of revolutions on, the reason for her sojourn became apparent as a dozen eggs fell from the back of her bike’s bracket. They smashed and scattered their way across the ground.
The cyclist applied the brakes and began a change of course with a resignation befitting a mountain climber looking up to discover that there is still just one more summit.
How unfortunate, the Professor thought as he strolled past the egg and gravity-based disaster.
He felt strange walking the streets of Cambridge again, the canals perpendicular and underfoot with leisurely boats paddling along, channelling a piece of Venice in their wake.
Only days after being summoned from his home in Melbourne, he had made his way onto a plane and, in a flash, reappeared with a fresh coat of jet lag. Now the Professor was on his way to an old friend, feeling decidedly out of place.
Cambridge was good at that, making you feel out of place, that is. Ironically, it manifests somewhat differently if you were but a traveller from Australia, as he had been many years ago before the title of Professor had been bestowed upon him. As a backpacker, you don’t really sit on the social class system anywhere and are viewed more as a curiosity. Well worth a nod and a smile, but no more than a few minutes of polite conversation.
But returning as he was, a thoroughly educated professor of the University of Melbourne, he would be viewed as an educator of an inferior order, being Australian after all.
The social class system was on its way out in England, but it still held sway in the spires of intellectual order.
The Professor felt at home in Universities, of course. Indeed, he’d worked at one for many years now. He certainly looked the part. Tweed jacket ten years out of date, brown trousers neatly pressed, smudged glasses neatly manipulated dark greying hair and a slouch of the shoulders with lacklustre stride. All of this said, ‘I belong here, and I’ve got something on my mind’.
The Professor certainly had at that. He had been working at his desk back in Melbourne when he had received the news that his old friend Derek Stepton had passed away suddenly. He hadn’t heard from Derek in many years now. They had drifted apart as people do, but the Professor had a surreal thought that maybe he was getting to that age. Where you start meeting up with people at the funerals of friends, make promises to catch up and then dutifully return to your busy schedule until the next fatalistic meeting.
He and some of Derek’s family, whom the Professor had never met, were summoned to a solicitor in a hall not too far from Richmond East train station. The office had been as sombre as the occasion, and the plain man behind the static desk had read out some basic instructions of the will.
The conversation had gone somewhat sideways when the Professor was called to the foreground.
‘You are to go to Cambridge and visit the Vice-Chancellor, Garry Burgman’, the man had said in a flat tone. ‘You will take this envelope’ a plain envelope was handed forward to the Professor, ‘and give it to him, and you shall read in situ, not before.’ The last instruction was handed out like a whip crack. The man evidently took his job very seriously and saw the words of a deceased as sacred.
The family looked at the Professor suspiciously. Understandable, having not met him before. He answered with a shrug.
‘Is that it? No other information?’ he inquired.
‘There was a small notation at the time,’ the dull solicitor replied, looking up from his paperwork, eyes gazing over the frame of his glasses. ‘It seems that Mr Stepton has a bit of a mission for you, a quest, if you will.’
The Professor couldn’t hold back a disbelieving laugh. The tone of the outburst asked the question, but he added the words as insurance, ‘you’re joking, right?’
The ordinary man took on a severe posture, looking up from his desk and staring directly into the Professor’s soul and said, ‘I don’t joke about my work, sir.’
‘Is that it?’ was the best he could muster for a response, ‘isn’t there anything else you can tell me?’
‘There was only one other notation on the file, ‘it will bring closure’’. The solicitor read from the papers before returning his plain but disturbing stare to the Professor.
He had taken the envelope then and asked for some leave at work. His classes had been wound back recently, most likely due to his Head of Department, Sigmund Trevally, a deplorable little man with desires of grandeur beyond his position. It was the Professor’s view that Sigmund was trying to make him redundant. Perhaps there would be no job when he returned. Regardless, he silently thanked the slimy little man, for, without his tinkering with the class schedule, this leave at short notice would not have been possible.
The Professor walked into the University of Cambridge and made his way to the Vice Chancellor’s office. The reason why he had accepted this ‘quest’ was clear. His spark of life had dwindled for some time now. Quietly accepting his fate at work, being pushed to the side like an inconvenience. Once upon a time, he would have pushed back, but not anymore.
This cry for help from a now-deceased friend stirred something in him. Perhaps the spark had not abandoned him entirely. He had a feeling that his life was about to take a dramatic turn.
The Professor barely said hello to the receptionist. She smiled and directed him into the room labelled ‘Prof Burgman, Vice Chancellor’. He thanked her and marched into the office.