This story is by James Bartlett and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Rawleigh, a second millennium experiment in new-town planning, is situated just to the west of the M1 motorway, approximately half way between Nottingham and Lincoln.
Bob Williamson, 28, sat in the taxi that was taking him from the train station to Rawleigh Hall, the University of North West Leicestershire’s principle campus, to which he was newly appointed as a lecturer in Traditional Studies.
The Pakistani taxi driver, having ascertained that this was his fare’s first visit to Rawleigh, kept up a ceaseless flow of information as they sped through the straight streets, and lurched round the right angled road junctions whenever the traffic lights permitted.
‘Built like a grid it is being, this town. You will be seeing Uni up ahead at next junction.’ The cab stopped at a red light, and Bob spied the imposing Palladian building perched on a low hill dead ahead. Raindrops splattered on the windscreen as the lights turned green and the cab moved off.
‘Going all round the grid pattern at the centre of the town is the Inner Ring as they are calling it. That is making four segments. The parish church is in one segment, all the schools with their playing fields are being in another, the Memorial Park in the third and…’ another red light held them at the junction with the Inner Ring, ‘Uni is being here, in this segment. It is all being very geometrical. They build it round the old baron’s place, Rawleigh Hall.’ The cab pulled across the junction to enter the campus through a pair of wrought iron gates whose stone pillars were each topped by a carved horse’s head. ‘He was a one for the gee-gees was the old baron,’ volunteered the driver as they drove through the grounds of the imposing building. ‘It is not being as old as it is looking, though. Victorian.’
The driver stopped the cab and Bob asked the price of the fare. ‘No worries, it’s on account,’ said the driver as his passenger thanked him and got out. As he walked round the back of the cab the boot lid, controlled from within, sprung open. Bob smiled, realising that he didn’t look senior enough to warrant the driver actually getting out, and removing the suitcase from the boot. Resisting the urge to walk away with his case, leaving the boot lid open, Bob slammed it shut, and the cab sped off. A uniformed porter met him at the front door and took his case.
‘Don’t you worry about that, sir. I’ll have it taken up to your rooms. I am Simms, sir, head porter. Professor Fanshawe asked me to show you to the Senior Common Room. They’re all in there. Please follow me, sir.’ Bob placed his case on the floor and heard Simms call to his assistant to deal with it, before the old porter led him away into the innards of the palatial building. After the cheerful informality of the cab driver, Simms’ respectful attitude was an unsettling change that left Bob with a slight feeling of nervousness in the pit of his stomach. He had little experience of servants.
They passed through a long hall that Simms explained was the “Refectory” and, at the other end, he knocked on a door, opening it without waiting for a reply and, standing back, let the newest-joined member of the Senior Common Room enter.
The buzz of conversation largely ceased on Williamson’s entrance, except for one venerable don, his back to the door, who was expounding on the magnificence of the Roman Empire at the far end of the room.
‘… a civilization not seen again until the coming of the Renaissance in …’ sensing a hush that his homilies did not usually command, the old fellow tailed off and turned around, ‘what? Oh! I see. Welcome aboard old chap. As I was saying…’
The general hum of voices started up again as Bob’s head of department, Prof. Gerald Fanshawe crossed to where Bob stood, feeling awkward, by the door that had silently closed behind him.
The room was warm and smelt of coffee. No smoke though, as smoking had been banned in all public buildings. Fanshawe extended a hand.
‘Robert, er – Bob isn’t it? Come and have a coffee. Help yourself to biscuits, old chap. Milk and sugar?’ Fanshawe propelled the newly arrived lecturer towards a side table where the coffee and biscuits were laid out.
‘Neither, thanks, sir,’ replied Bob, placing two digestives on a plate at the same time as trying to take in the scene around him while his departmental head busied himself at the urn.
‘Bollocks!’ exclaimed a strident female voice from the group at the far end of the room. The hush descended once again, as the professor handed Bob his cup and saucer. The woman continued. ‘The bloody Romans were a bunch of fascists bent on ruling the world and keeping it under their thumbs. They put down rebellion with unmerciful cruelty. Any civilization they had was gained off the Greeks. Romans? A ghastly lot!’ She seemed to notice Bob for the first time. ‘Ah! New blood I see. What do you say then, young man?’
Bob felt himself blushing, and hated the feeling almost as much as he hated being addressed as “young man”. He felt he was being pushed in at the deep end of a swimming pool full of piranha fish that waited in judgemental silence for his answer.
‘I – I don’t think …’ he began but a frog had got into his throat. He cleared it noisily, and started again with more confidence, ‘I don’t think one should judge the morals of one age by the mores of another.’
There was a general hum of agreement, and he noticed Fanshawe nodding enthusiastically. It seemed for a moment that his answer had proved acceptable to both sides in the dispute. He allowed himself a smile, and a sip of his coffee. But he had relaxed too soon. The woman, a tall, raw-boned version of her kind, was elbowing her way towards him.
‘Name’s Robarts,’ she said without offering her ringless hand, ‘Philosophy,’ she added to Bob’s dismay. This one would be a practised conversationalist who would probably tie him in knots. Bob introduced himself extending his own hand, ‘Bob Williamson.’ His hand was not accepted. ‘Traditional Studies,’ he added, letting his arm drop, ready for the insult he felt certain his new discipline would attract. There was never much love lost in “the halls of academe” between the exponents of traditional areas of learning, which this lisle-stockinged example represented, and the more recently adopted faculties such as his own.
Julia Robarts was loud and totally unshockable. ‘A flipping folkie!’ she exclaimed in disgust. She was the type of middle-aged woman who took a delight in embarrassing young men with her insults. But there was more than just bluster to her, and she came straight to the point. ‘So you don’t think it is appropriate of us, in the twenty-first century, to sit in judgement on the mores of Ancient Rome. Is that it?’
Bob had not wanted to be sucked into an academic argument so early in his association with the university. He knew none of these people, and nothing about any of them. If he didn’t tread on anyone’s intellectual corns in the next few minutes it would be a miracle he thought. He decided on a sideways move.
‘I don’t see any point in it. Nothing we say here can change what the Romans, or anyone else in the past, did or did not do. What matters surely, is how we live our lives today.’
‘And when did the past begin, Mr. er – ?’ queried the belligerent Robarts.
Bob saw the chasm yawning in front of him. Nevertheless he thought, he might as well dive in, attack being the best means of defence.
‘In terms of not being able to influence what has already happened, the past began a second ago, when I told you my name, which you promptly forgot, but in terms of our responsibility for what has been done in the past, we obviously have to go back a little further.’
‘My point precisely!’
Fanshawe stepped in to try and calm the troubled waters. ‘Now come on, Julia, give the lad a chance he’s only just arrived here. He doesn’t know…’
‘A damn thing about damn all, so he should keep his damn mouth shut until he damn well does.’
‘That was uncalled for, Julia.’ Fanshawe interjected.
Bob felt anger welling up inside. He was, after all, an appointed university lecturer, an expert in his own field, even if that wasn’t philosophy. Social history played a large part in the Traditional Studies’ curriculum. He waded in.
‘In South Africa, under the auspices of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, the idea was to avoid the blood-letting associated with revenge; to let bygones be bygones, and start again with a new set of mores, rather than sitting in punitive judgement on the perpetrators of the late-unlamented apartheid regime.’
‘So crime should go unpunished?’ queried Robarts in challenging tones.
Salesmen say that the pressure of silence is the greatest pressure of all, and you could have heard a pin drop in that senior Common Room, had anyone had the temerity to be that careless.
Williamson cracked, as she had known he would.
‘M-maybe, under c-certain c-circumstances.’ His voice was small and hoarse.
‘What about historic child abuse? Would you let even that go by the board? School children, and younger, abused by men, many of whom are now masquerading as respectable senior citizens, if they’re not already dead; that sort of thing is fine by you, is it?’
‘No, of course not, but what is punishment designed to do? Change the behaviour of the guilty, or enact the revenge of society? Protect the innocent, or discourage the potentially guilty? Whatever your answer might be, is it appropriate to take action against the few old men left alive and smear the reputations of those dead, and unable to defend themselves?’
‘Did you know that this place, this very building, was once a residential school?’ asked Robarts, changing tack.
‘I read as much in the University’s prospectus, yes. What has that to do with anything? It closed as a school in the mid nineties.’
Robarts ignored the question. ‘It was my school,’ she said. ‘I was a pupil here from nineteen seventy-two to ‘seventy-eight.’
There was another pause; the dates meant little enough to the twenty-eight year old lecturer. ‘That would make you fifty-seven, then?’
The beginnings of a smile creased Fanshawe’s face. His new subordinate was bearing up well to the Senior Common Room bully.
‘It makes me young enough then to have attracted the unwelcome attentions of one Jimmy Saville and his friends.’
The reason for her misandry was now clear. Bob felt a cocktail of mixed feelings agitating within himself, sympathy for this innocent victim of Saville’s abuse, understanding of her attitude, along with sorrow that this bitter woman had never, and could never enjoy the physicality of true love of another human being unless, yes, unless of course she was a lesbian, and that was always possible. He pushed his sympathy for her aside. The woman had used her unfortunate history as a weapon to embarrass and bully him. If he backed down now he would have her on his back for the rest of his time here at Rawleigh Hall. He decided to play the Jesus card. Although he was the son of a clergyman, brought up surrounded by religiosity, Bob had rejected religious belief in adulthood, but she did not know that.
‘Our Lord, taught us that we should forgive seventy times seven. How often were you abused, Miss Robarts?’
He didn’t wait for a reply, but turned away towards Fanshawe, who enthusiastically began introducing him to the other members of the faculty of Traditional Studies.