Wednesday, 5 December 2012
I found the Professor in his oak-panelled study, basking in the glow of a coal fire. Two beeswax candles in silver candlesticks stood on his desk - these and the fire providing his only sources of illumination. The Professor was seated in his favourite elm settle among flickering shadows, a bottle of old port on an ancient tripod table by his elbow.
‘Come in old chap.’ With a large hand, the Professor waved me to a chair on the other side of the fire. ‘Have a glass.’ With a soft plop he uncorked the port. From a nearby shelf he took two marvellously delicate glasses, their rims chased with the finest gold filigree which threw off tiny flecks of light from the fire as the Professor filled each glass to its golden rim.
‘Not going to the Dean’s Christmas party, Professor?’ I asked, taking the seat by the fire. As the Professor poured generously, I savoured that rich, raisin aroma of old port which seemed to permeate the very walls of the Professor’s study. His room was warm but not too warm for comfort, a bitter December wind making futile attacks on mullioned windows.
‘No not this year.’
‘You attended last year though, if I remember rightly.’
‘Yes, but last year you see, I upset the Dean’s wife.’
‘An easy enough thing to do under any circumstances, Christmas especially.’ I replied. I eyed the port, gazing at one of the Professor’s candles through its luscious purple depths.
‘Indeed. It is all too easy to upset the Dean’s wife I’m afraid. At least I find it so.’
‘I simply said to her - madam, you have the nose of a snuff-taker - do try a pinch of my special blend.’
‘Oh dear again.’
‘She was not amused. I could tell immediately.’
‘One always can tell – especially with the Dean’s wife.’
‘In any event, the Dean only serves the most execrable cream sherry at Christmas.’ The Professor picked up his glass of port from the table. ‘These glasses are Venetian – eighteenth century. Just imagine - the lovely lips of Kitty Fisher may have touched them.’ He held his glass to the firelight and with slow relish he took a long sip. I joined him and for a while we sat in companionable silence.
‘I’m supposed to be writing a ghost story,’ I said eventually, ‘but I’m short of ideas so I thought I’d give it a rest for a while.’ I warmed my hands by the fire.
‘Ghosts don’t exist,’ the Professor replied, setting down his glass. ‘The laws of physics insist that even the ghost of Kitty Fisher cannot come back to haunt us – more’s the pity. You see, even a ghost must have an energy source. Even the ghost of Kitty Fisher. We cannot make exceptions where the laws of the universe are concerned.’
‘Maybe not, but I can’t put the laws of physics into a ghost story.’
‘I don’t see why not. Scientific laws tell us what is real and what isn’t. Kitty Fisher was delightfully real. Now she isn’t - real that is. She is still in a sense – delightful.’
‘Yes but I have to write a scary ghost story – not a dissertation on physics. I’m sure the laws of physics are a comfort, but I’m not offering comfort to my readers.’
‘No of course you aren’t offering comfort old chap – just the opposite in fact. Well then – it must be a quiet ghost sucking energy from its surroundings. Mere wisps of energy beyond the ken of our measuring devices. A kind of afterglow from the past, from what was but now is not. Apart of course from the afterglow.’
‘A quiet ghost?’ I took another sip of port and thought of Kitty Fisher.
‘It could be the quiet ghost of a quiet man, still searching for a quiet place,’ the Professor mused. ‘I’m a quiet man, but one day I’ll make a little more commotion than usual.’
‘Oh I think I’ll challenge the Dean to a duel. It’s about time somebody did. That’ll cause a certain amount of noise.’
‘I don’t see why not. It’s Christmas, a time of traditions, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t revive an old tradition and challenge the Dean to a duel.’
‘On what grounds.’
‘Oh I don’t know, there are so many offensive aspects to the Dean that one is spoilt for choice. His silliness for instance. I find that most offensive – and perfectly good grounds for a duel.’
‘Well there is that. How about weapons?’
‘We’ll have a pile of his badly-written books to hurl at each other from twenty paces. The Dean may choose which of his ridiculous books make the best missiles. I’ll challenge him formally during a faculty meeting - you may be my second.’
‘Fine - and perhaps we should make merry ourselves now you’ve avoided the Dean’s party and sorted out the duel.’
The Professor stretched his legs towards the fire, took a silver snuff-box from his waistcoat pocket and smiled. ‘Avoiding the Dean is my way of making merry. Avoiding his ghastly cream sherry and festive patisserie from the nearest supermarket – that is merely a bonus.’
I sipped my port, the Professor took snuff and we both thought of Kitty Fisher and the art of making merry.