Joshua had woken up late after another evening in the pub with Mark, and was eating buttered toast as he walked across the campus. It was May now, and Beltane had passed so there were no bonfires lit, or the smell of woodsmoke hanging on the air. Instead the air was slightly warm, the trees were shivering their leaves in a strong breeze, and flowers were blooming happily below them. Joshua was sure that they must have all been like that before Beltane, but in his mind all he could see were stark white-and-grey tree branches, sullen green grass and no flowers. He preferred campus when it was vibrant and alive though.
Sudden footsteps behind him made him slow his step and turn his head, curious to see who was overtaking him. The footsteps stopped though, and a young-looking man with jet black hair, brown eyes and a wide smile showing bright white teeth caught his eye.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I am looking for the Mathematics building, and I was told it was this way.” It wasn’t a question, but there was a slight rising intonation at the end of the sentence that suggested he was looking for confirmation.
“Um, yes,” said Joshua swallowing. He pointed with his toast. “Follow this path to the end, then turn left towards the Quadrangle – that’s the group of building you can see there, and it’s the one on the far side.”
“Thank-you,” said the young man. “You’ve been very helpful.”
He walked ahead of Joshua, who was considering saying that he was going that way himself, but then he decided that he preferred the company of his own thoughts. The young man appeared to have a tan already, and he wondered briefly just how well-off students here were these days. He was sure that he couldn’t afford a holiday this year to anywhere that hot. Not that he wanted to, he preferred moderate temperatures, and even liked the chill of Spring or Autumn. He crammed the rest of his toast into his mouth and carried on towards his office.
He slipped in through Newton’s Door as usual and up the stairs. He heard raised voices distantly as he ascended them, and wondered what the argument was about. Mathematicians, in his experience, rarely shouted at each other about maths, though they might get more upset about people using their coffee cups without asking first, or, on one memorable occasion, their wife. He certainly wasn’t interested though; he needed to make sure his seminar propositions were written up today as he’d had an email from Dr. Hawne the evening before saying that she would be coming in to look them over. There wasn’t a lot to write up, from his perspective, as the result was already established and he was writing it up separately into a journal submission, but he knew that she’d want to see some planned structure for his talk and she’d probably want to look over the result as well. He doubted that she’d follow it that well, given that their areas of specialisation were distant, but he’d never seen her admit to being wrong, or even slightly inaccurate yet.
In fairness, he supposed, he’d never actually caught her out in an inaccuracy either, and that was quite a feat for anybody.
He carded his door open and stepped into his office. As he took his jacket off he looked around, and realised that he quite liked the office being tidy. It was the effort involved in keeping it that way that he didn’t enjoy. Maybe he should ask Mark about that idea of getting a cleaner in to do it for him, but he could see problems with the cleaner being given access to the room. Definitely problems, he remembered what the Security office had been like.
His jacket went on the back of his chair and he flipped the lid of the Macbook up. It beeped, passive-aggressively informing him that he’d forgotten to plug the power-cord in again, and dimmed its screen so that it was hard to read. When that was fixed he was torn between checking his email and checking on his presentation, finally justifying email to himself as finding out if Dr. Hawne had changed her mind, or even specified a time that she’d be arriving.
The knock on his door happened just as he’d deleted the first ten emails, and he looked up in panic. Surely Dr. Hawne couldn’t be here this early?
“I’m sorry,” he said as he opened the door, running his excuse through his mind and trying to get it out before she could speak. “I’ve only just… you’re not Dr. Hawne.”
“And you’re not the Mayor of London.” The woman stood outside his door was the one he’d spoken to in the Security offices. Behind her, head bowed and looking at his feet, was the young man that Joshua had given directions to earlier.
“No, said Joshua. “I think you have to live or work there to be that. Have you found who put that journal in my office?”
“No,” said the woman. “I thought you looked familiar. We reviewed additional footage, including the outside of the building. No-one entered your office at the time you claim the journal appeared, so you should reconsider when it entered your office. Anyway, this person here,” she gestured behind her, but her eyes didn’t leave Joshua’s face, “says that he has business with you.”
They looked at each other for a few seconds, and Joshua started to feel a little uneasy.
“Who are you?” he asked, looking at the young man.
“Venkat,” he said immediately, holding out his hand. As the woman from Security was in the way it was a rather awkward handshake, and Joshua noted only that it was firm and fast. The young man seemed to have quite warm, dry hands. “I want to talk to you about Oakvell.”
“Never heard of it,” said Joshua, shaking his head. “Are you sure you’ve got the right person?”
“I think so,” said Venkat, his smile never leaving his face. “I was told that you’ve recently read a newspaper about it. Something about mathematics there.”
“You don’t really get mathematics in newspapers,” said Joshua. “And when you do it’s usually wrong. Or old news. And I don’t read many newspapers, not really.”
“But I was told,” said Venkat, his smile fading. He tilted his head to one side and seemed to be listening to something. “Perhaps… perhaps it’s not a newspaper? A paper of some kind?”
“I think that’s enough,” said the Security woman firmly. “I’m sorry we bothered you,” she said to Joshua, her tone suggesting that she wasn’t all that sorry. She turned and took Venkat’s elbow in her hand and pushed him away from the office.
“A paper about mathematics that was… anachronistic?” Venkat seemed to be repeating words only he could hear. A sudden cold chill ran down his spine.
“Wait, what?” he said. The woman from Security gave him a baleful look but stopped pushing. “What do you mean, anachronistic?”
“I don’t know what that word means,” said Venkat apologetically. “Um,…” he tilted his head again. “Mathematics that isn’t old enough?”
“Close enough,” said Joshua. “You can come in.”
“When he has a visitor’s pass,” said the woman from Security promptly. “Are you willing to vouch for him as your visitor now?” Joshua nodded. “Good, sign here.” She produced an iPhone-sized gadget from a pocket and pulled a stylus from the underside of it. The screen lit up and the device beeped. Joshua took the stylus and wrote his signature on the screen.
“Thank-you. We’ll be back in a few minutes when we’ve issued the pass.”
“Right,” said Joshua, a little bit taken aback. “Is this normal for visitors?”
“We normally have a list of expected visitors,” said the woman from Security. “So that we can prepare the passes in advance. Come on you, you can come back in a couple of minutes.” They disappeared down the corridor, and Joshua returned to his office wondering exactly what he’d just witnessed, and what Venkat knew about the mysterious journal.