There was a smell of burning hanging in the air and grey smoke drifted across the path in places. Joshua sniffed and then looked around to see if he could see any of the bonfires. The late April foliage was already obscuring many of the views between the paths on campus though, and the trees and bushes were too thickly sprouted to see through. He carried on, his shoes clicking sharply on the paved path, turning his head this way and that in the hopes of spotting the tell-tale orange glow.
It was late afternoon and he was returning from the library after a fruitless search on the shelves for a journal that the library’s computers insisted was present and available to be checked out. Knowing what the mathematics faculty was like for replacing things in the right place he’d extended his search along the full row of bookcases where the journals were stored, even pulling out some of the larger binders to see if the journal had slipped – or been hidden by some eccentric – behind them. Nothing had turned the journal up though, and finally he’d given up the hunt and gone down to the Inter-Library loans desk to try and make it the problem of the librarians. There he’d been confronted by a cardboard sign with wobbly handwriting on, telling him that the loans desk was closed due to illness.
A squirrel ran out of the bushes ahead of him and froze in the middle of the path. It turned its head sideways, regarding him with a beady black eye, and when it was satisfied that he wasn’t stopping, it carried on, a blur across the path and into the bushes on the other side. The rattle of sharp claws let him know that it had found a tree to scurry up, and was probably peering out from the leaves now, watching him walk past and leave its domain.
Sherwood University was a campus university, which meant that all the buildings that constituted it were clustered together on the one site. There was a very small village on the edge, where historically the campus staff had lived, and a main road at one side of the university where buses and cars made their pilgrimages from the town centre out to the university and back again. The campus housed the majority of the students who attended, and most of the faculty too. This had come as a slight surprise to Joshua when he’d been accepted as a postdoc, as he was more used to the metropolitan universities where the students lived wherever they could afford and trekked across the city to the various building, sometimes criss-crossing several times in one day. He’d been offered housing, and when he’d looked at it he realised that it was nicer than anything he’d expected to be able to afford in the town itself, and had accepted on the spot.
The path reached a crossroads and ahead of him now was the Natural Sciences Quadrangle, a rectangular lawn that was said to be as old as the university itself, around which the Physics, Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics faculties had their departments. Lecturing was done in the Lecture Halls, a separate building off to the left and much newer than the Natural Sciences buildings. This was, of course, relative: since every building at Sherwood University was at least three hundred years old newer simply meant that the ivy that covered the walls might be slightly less thick in places, or the stones might be slightly less age-stained or weather-worn. The Lecture Halls had turned three hundred the year before Joshua arrived, and there had apparently been a small celebration held in their honour. He carried on walking, heading to Newton’s Door – allegedly the great man had visited the university while he was Master of the Mint and this was the door that he’d used to enter the Mathematics building.
He walked the path around the lawn. There was no rule, as far as he was aware, against walking on the grass, but no-one did. Not even visitors, not even students. Newton’s Door was slightly ajar as it was kept open during office hours, and he went inside.
The slightly acrid smell of burning wood disappeared immediately and was replaced by the scent of pine furniture polish and some floral air-freshener. He sniffed, and decided it was probably lavender, the supposedly innocuous scent that seemed to pollute so many of the university buildings. He preferred the smell of the smoke outdoors. The entrance hall was panelled in polished wood, and a large wooden staircase twisted its way up to the next floor, taking up much of the space. Beneath the staircase was a floor-buffing machine, its bright orange cable coiled neatly and hung over its handle, and at the foot of stairs was a short corridor that terminate in a door at either end. Portraits of notable alumni hung on the wall, but Joshua hadn’t bothered to read the little brass plaques that were screwed below them and didn’t recognise any of them anyway. There was a thumping noise coming from the left, which he knew was where the porter’s office was. He turned right, and climbed the stairs.
The stairs led up a total of four floors, and there was a fifth floor above that but only accessed from a separate single flight of stairs at the back of the fourth floor coffee room. There were explanations for the odd architecture, as there were for just about every building in the university, but Joshua was less interested in the why of it, and more in the where of where he was supposed to be. Though he was excused from teaching, he was still required to attend seminars and advanced lecture series (as were all the faculty who weren’t so infirm that the stairs defeated them), and some of the seminar rooms seemed to be almost maliciously hard to find. He went up to the second floor, turned right into another wood-panelled, thickly carpeted corridor, and walked along until he reached the third door on the left. Then he took a key-card from him pocket, beeped it against a patch of wall that looked like all the rest, and pushed the door open when he heard the click of the lock disengaging. His office was exactly as he’d left it: mostly a mess.
There were papers stacked on the desk, on his chair, and in one corner of the room. There was a white-board, with its marker pens and felt eraser, at right-angles to the window, which largely prevented glare except late in the afternoon in summer, when the sun was low and shining through at just the wrong angle. There was a mahogany bookcase adjacent to the door, its thick, long shelves supporting a feeble-seeming collection of paperbacks and a mere handful of hardbacks; unlike most other surfaces in the room this had no papers stacked or strewn on it at all. A Macbook Pro sat on a corner of the desk, slightly overshadowed by the papers, and a pristine white cable disappeared under the desk to a power-socket hidden in the boiserie. The computer beeped as he came in, and he paused for a moment, wondering why. Then he realised that he’d forgotten to plug it in that morning, and the beeping was almost certainly an alarm telling him that it was about to die. He swore softly and dived under the desk to find the plug.
“Ah, Joshua, so glad to have caught you,” said a soft, growly voice from the doorway. Joshua found the plug by pulling on the cable until it appeared, and then stuck it into the near-hidden socket. Then he wriggled out backwards from under the desk and turned around, still crouching and a little red-faced. Standing the doorway, wearing a three-piece tweed suit that would have better suited a gentleman farmer or a 1930’s playboy-hunter, was Dr. Kathleen Hawne. She was the Reader in Analytic Topology and organised the departments lecture series and colloquia. She had a leather briefcase tucked under one arm, and Joshua noticed that it was the same colour as the leather elbow patches on her suit. In her other hand she had a cigarette and her car-keys.
“Dr. Hawne,” he said, standing up. He looked hopelessly at the papers on the chair. “Won’t you come in?”
“No, thank-you,” she said. “I’m off to Boothroyd’s, Jim tells me he’s managed to find a first edition of Littlewood’s On the theory of functions. I’m skeptical, but I thought I’d take a look. No, what I was hoping you might do for me; for us, rather, is pick up the slot in the first week of June. Emily’s cancelled because she’s due then, and we’ve not heard much about your work in a while, so this would be a great opportunity to do me a favour and bring us all up to speed at the same time. What do you think?”
Joshua smiled, working out in his head how many weeks that gave him to prepare. “That would be great,” he said. “I’d like that. I’ll have to check my conference commitments of cours–“
“You do that,’ said Kathleen turning away. “But I’m sure I can get them cancelled for you.”
“That’s not what I meant,” said Joshua softly as the door closed after her. He sighed; four weeks was plenty of time, and he did have a nice result to show people, but it was the way she just presumed that made him feel angry. He was frankly astonished that she’d not just told Emily, whoever she might be, that the baby could be gotten rid of, at least until after the talk.
He immediately apologised, in his head, to Emily for wishing ill on her, and hoped that it would be an easy birth. Then he looked at the chair again and wondered why he’d thought it would be a good idea to stack papers there – oh that’s right, he’d moved them from the floor when he was trying to find the USB key that he’d dropped – and carefully picked them and eyed up the bookcase. There was plenty of room there, but it somehow felt wrong to clutter it, so he cluttered the floor instead and stacked the papers in a free corner. Then he sat down and went to open his Macbook to check his email, and realised that he didn’t recognise the journal that was leaning against it.
He picked it and checked the spine in case it was the one he’d been hunting for in the library, but it was clearly too old, and the lettering on the spine was too worn to read. He looked at the front cover, and although he could make out the word Journal the rest was nearly obliterated by age. He frowned, and very carefully lifted the cover. The card was brittle and made cracking sounds, but nothing broke off, and the ink on the yellowish-brown pages inside was still black and legible. There was a bookmark, a purple silky ribbon about half-way through, and he surmised that he was supposed to look at what was marked.