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The Poddington Project: Stories

First Week of Term

It was early autumn, but the scent of summer was in the air; an earthy fragrance that came in through the open windows and filled the rooms and halls of Magnusson College. The late afternoon sun was low in the sky, touching each and every thing with hazy, golden light. In the distance, a noisy group of students cycled down the dirt road that led to the village. It was the end of the first week of term.

Above the ivy-choked parapet of the third floor, the sun's rays found their way into the open window of a small tower projecting from the side of the main building. The circular room inside the tower was warm and comfortable; an academic's office, furnished chiefly by a large, mahogany desk that took up most of the room. Leather-bound books and columns of paper were neatly stacked against the walls and a small, cosy fire crackled in a sooty grate.

Two people occupied the office. One was a tutor, distinguished as such by the black scholar's robes he wore over his tweed suit; the other was a student, dressed in sporty tennis attire. The tutor sat in a padded leather chair behind the desk. He was staring with increasing dislike at the student, who was sitting in a wooden chair opposite him and nervously rolling a tennis racket back and forth over his knees. An uncomfortable silence reigned.

"How very extraordinary," the tutor said finally. His expression and tone suggested anything but.

The student managed the semblance of a ghastly smile.  "Thank you, sir."

"It's extraordinary, in fact, that you weren't throttled at birth, Carlisle. And rotten luck for the rest of us."

Carlisle audibly swallowed. "Mr G-Godolphin, sir?"

"Here.  You'd better get on with this. I want it rewritten by Monday." Godolphin slid a heavily marked-up paper across the desk.


"For Christ's sake, go away," Godolphin said exasperatedly. "I shan't be wasting any more time with you."

Carlisle retrieved the paper, stuffed it into a cracked, leather satchel, and slunk from the room.  Godolphin's frown deepened as he watched him leave. What a hideous tick. He wondered if he had ever been like that. "God forbid," he muttered under his breath.

There was more shadow than light in the office now. Godolphin stood and walked over to the window. The day was dying.  Russet clouds streamed across the sky and the gloaming had taken the distant moors.  He laid a hand against the cool, stone slab of the window sill.  "While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day," he softly quoted.  "And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue ..... " His voice trailed off and he stood there a long while in silence, drinking in the scene outside.

Godolphin's reverie was interrupted by the slow, stately strains of a minuet coming through the thin walls; someone in the Sceptical Society office had fixed the gramophone. He shrugged off his robes and sank back into his chair, reaching out a lazy hand to open one of the desk drawers. The wood was warped and loudly groaned. On the other side of the wall, the minuet abruptly stopped, to be replaced by hushed, excited voices.  He wryly grinned. The blighters will be debunking his desk next.

Godolphin sifted through the compartment's contents, until he found a slim, leather-bound book that lay near the back of the drawer. As he lifted it out, a brown and white photograph unpeeled from the book's back cover and floated down to the carpet.  He became very still, regarding the image for a long moment before reluctantly bending down to pick the photograph up. It was a younger version of himself, seated on a barstool and raising a foaming glass of beer to the photographer.  A grinning youth sat next to him. Some caprice of the camera's flash had obliterated half the boy's face. It was Carstairs, though.

Lighting a cigarette, Godolphin sank even further and brooded.

Nine years ago.  That's when the photograph had been taken. Godolphin had been in the sixth, studying like a madman for the Balliol scholarship.  He slowly exhaled.  Not that he really needed to study. He'd always been a good student. Nothing wrong with the old bean there.  Still, he admitted, being first in his class and juggling the debating society, fencing club, and school play at the same time had taken its toil. In those last months of school, Carstairs had been a saviour.

"Wouldn't it be jolly witty if you didn't pass this year?" Carstairs had always asked before each outing.

"It bloody well wouldn't be jolly to me," he had replied, the first few times.  Still, he had gone along with his friend to whatever watering hole would have them. They had been inseparable.

Godolphin's smile faded.  Carstairs had hailed from Poddington-on-Slossip; a village that lay but a few miles from the college. Odd that nobody there appeared to know Carstairs or the family. Perhaps he had confused the name with some other place.  Villages sounded all alike in this part of the country.

Godolphin picked up the photograph again. Peculiar. He had not noticed before, but there were two minuscule splotches visible on the paper, one over his jacket lapel and the other over Carstairs'.  He frowned, immediately recognizing what they were. Pins. The camera flash had caught on their club pins. "Bloody hell," Godolphin swore aloud.  It had been months since he had thought of the club; and he did not want to start thinking about it now.  His hand shook as he stuffed the photograph between the pages of the book. Pushing it far back in the compartment, he shut and locked the drawer. 

The sun had long set, the fire was dying in the grate and the temperature of the room was falling. He checked the time on his watch. Young Simmons needed to be tutored in Marlowe soon.  With a sigh, he shrugged back into his black robes. Marlowe always gave him a headache.