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Professor Hancock’s room had been worked on by the cleaning staff (Madam Marie) but it was more of a tidy mess than clean. The room was stacked with books and folders, every wall was a shelf and every inch of floor space (bar a thin footpath woven through) was filled with exotic objects and ancient tomes.
James had been in his old Master’s room many times, but somehow now, without Hancock, it seemed alien and uninviting. He dreaded having to throw out any of the old man’s stuff; it was as if his life was represented here in the form of collectables and scribbles, which, considered James, it really was.
Behind three rusting claymore swords James found a VCR and a small portable television attached by a cable. A series of inter-connecting plugs and sockets hooked these machines into Botolf’s primordial electrical system. James pressed the ‘on’ buttons of both machines and sat down on a pile of theses submissions marked 1967 to 1977.
He sighed loudly. Why couldn’t life be easy? He’d been happy as a researcher, giving the occasional guest lecture, reviewing books by historians no one had ever heard of for academic magazines no one would ever read. It had all been so undemanding. But then ‘love’ had changed all that. Liz wanted him to be ‘all he could be’. It was her idea to come back to Botolf, and it was her who suggested it would be a stepping stone to Oxford or Cambridge, to his own department. James didn’t want his own department, he didn’t even want his own office; but he found it hard to say no to Liz. She seemed so sure, so confident, that he would be a success. James guessed it was the American-spirit of success in her, a kind of self-assurance that came from being brought up in a country with lots and lots of nuclear bombs.
James sighed again. ‘That’s becoming a habit’, he thought, ‘I must try to stop doing it’. He pushed the unlabelled video into the slot and waited for a few moments as the TV spurted into life.
“Hello James,” said the dead Professor Hancock on the screen. He was clearly sitting in his room; in fact, James noticed immediately that Professor Hancock was sitting on this very same pile of theses from 1967 to 1977. James squirmed anxiously.
“This is spooky isn’t it,” said Hancock, “except of course if you’ve come across this by accident, in which case get out on my room and finish your damn thesis.” The Professor heartedly laughed. “Only joking James. By now you’ve had your first lecture in the department of Medieval Thought, Congratulations.”
“Sorry Professor,” said James, a naughty schoolboy flush coming to his checks.
“I always knew you’d be the one to take over my work James.” A melancholy seriousness took over the Professor’s face.
“None of the other students I’ve taught over the last few decades really had the qualities I was looking for in a successor.”
James felt a gust of pride rise up inside himself; he knew he was a dedicated student and a favourite of the old man but ‘best student for decades’ that was something else.
“Now James,” continued the Professor, “I suppose you have many questions; that’s to be expected. Why don’t you ask them now and I’ll see if I can open up the realities of my work for you to really appreciate. You see James you’ve only touched on what we do here at Botolf. Your career has really only begun, my young apprentice.”
The Professor leaned back a little and sat there silent with a half grin across his kind face.
“You want me to ask a pre-recorded message … questions?” said James to himself.
“Yes,” said the Professor.
James sat there in stunned silence and then laughed loudly and pointed at the screen. “You old dog you, one final joke before you go. I bet you even anticipated this and have a witty retort.”
“Not really,” said the Professor on the screen.
“I get it!” said James, “Cold reading, you record a bunch of open-ended comments that could fit almost anything I say, didn’t you once tell me that this was all Nostradamus’ quatrains were, ‘a stoner’s version of cold reading’ you said.”
“Yes indeed,” answer the Video Professor. “But,” he added quickly “this is not an opportunity for me to show my acumen but for you James to ask those questions you are longing to ask.”
“Oh okay,” said James, “I’ll play along. We’ll see if you anticipated this Professor; why are your history notes full of dragons and wizards and the maddest drivel about fairies and elves I’ve ever seen? Answer that then eh!”
“Not everything I said is mad, James,” said the dead man.
“More cold reading,” whispered James.
“I’m sorry you’ll have to speak up, I didn’t quite catch that. The speaker on this old TV isn’t the best I’m afraid.”
James giggled nervously and reached forward to adjust the knob for the volume control.
“I wonder Professor if you can answer me a real question. What am I going to do?” James was asking himself more than anything. He knew he loved Liz and he knew he loved his old college, but right now he doubted if he could live with either.
“James,” came the voice of his old mentor, “I’m sorry this heavy burden has been left to you, I really am, but fate has a way of levelling these things up. I hope in time you can forgive me my lapse in training you, and my semi-absence in your indoctrination into our little group.”
“It’s alright Professor, I’ll muddle through,” said James wearily.
“Muddling thought may not be enough. Sometimes our job here at Botolf can be dangerous and can involve great personal sacrifice.”
“How are you doing this?” James asked the TV.
“Oh this isn’t a VCR. I modified the box using, well, you’ll see for yourself soon. It’s a soul containment device,” said the Professor casually. “I often sat in here on full terms, it really is good for the old sleep you know, adds years to your life,” he added.
James was now more than a little spooked, whatever the Professor had done to achieve this effect it was working.
“I think I’ll turn you off for a while Professor, I’m feeling a little light headed,” said James, his hand shaking, reaching out for the off button.
“Before you go James, just two things. I’ve left some equipment for you in my private study. The key is hanging behind the drapes on the last bay window of my bedroom,” said Hancock.
“Thank you,” whispered James.
“You’re welcome. And the other thing James; if and when you need me, I’ll be here.”