Elfreth’s Alley- E’s story
Red door, red windows, second floor. Red door, red windows, second floor.
The cobblestone pavement was hurting Emily’s feet and her clothes were soaked up by the summer shower.
The sun was now shining as if five minutes ago it hadn’t been raining cats and dogs. Red door, red windows…
She kept balancing her suitcase and her purse with one hand and in the other; she had the largest bouquet she has found at the market. It has been fifteen years since she has seen her great uncle and she was more than happy to be reconnected with him. Former army colonel, uncle Maximum, or Max, as anyone knew him, was the living proof that no matter how many times life knocked you down, you still have it in you to get up and start fresh. He lost his wife when he came back from the war; he lost his small business and the family farm shortly afterwards, then had to take the weirdest jobs to support his younger sister, Emily’s mom, before he joined the army and made a career out if it, being deployed all over the world, in dangerous and conflictual zones, sending Emily post-cards with weird names and strange buildings and foreign people on them.
Now he was retired, owner of an old house on the historic alley in Philly, far, far away from the old Texas ranch where he grew up gallivanting on the dusty and wide roads.
Emily’s fascination with this fantastic relative grew with every post-card and with every letter, and when she finally met him and could put a face to that glorious name, it thrilled her. And now Emily was keen on writing a book about him. About him and his adventures, the life of his generation and, especially of the people’s Colonel, as people knew him.
Red door, red windows, second floor.
Emily stopped dead in her tracks. There was more than one red door. And definitely many, many more red windows. Did he say there were red windows also on the second floor? Did she have somewhere written the full address?
Red door. She stopped. Put her bags down, the flowers on top, and started rummaging through her purse for an envelope with an address.
“Excuse me, Miss, you cannot block the entrance!”
“Excuse-” she started, flustered, annoyed and panicked, turning around to face her accuser. “What do you mean blocking the entrance? There is enough space for you to get in! I am looking for something…”
“Yes, obviously,” said the voice, “a better angle for a selfie, … Or the best light? Or something as trivial as this.”
Emily finally faced the man and gasped. He was tall. Okay, truth be told, compared to her height, everyone was tall. But this guy had to be at least 6 feet. Tall, blond and dangerous. Or was that dark and dangerous? Anyhow, this blond one looked dangerous enough to give the dark ones a run for their money.
“First of all, Mister… I’m not looking for my phone to take a damn selfie! I will not get a selfie stick out of my purse and I’m definitely not going to search for the best angle, light combination or whatever!”
She realised she kind of yelled at him… but only when the elderly couple passing by snickered at her remarks while continuing to take pictures at every corner they could find. Wow, she definitely put her foot in her mouth.
“You’re still blocking my entry, Miss,” he said condescendingly.
Emily grabbed her bags, allowing the annoying man to pass.
“By all means, help a girl out…” she said when she put the heavy suitcase down straight on the cobblestone.
“Not my monkey, not my circus,” said the man entering the house, leaving her beyond shocked on the alley.
Closing her eyes and gathering her bearings, she took three deep breaths, centring herself. She then realised her hands were closed in tight fists, he nails deep in flesh.
“Damn you, blondie!” she whispered and resumed her search.
An elderly lady, all posh and class, turned on the alley, carrying a tiny dog, one of the ugliest Emily had ever seen in her entire life. And that said something, as she had volunteered in her teens at a vet cabinet and she had seen all kinds of weird-looking, gremlin-like vermin-fury creatures that somehow passed as dogs. The lady took out a key with her perfectly manicured hands and smiled at her, and a cloud of sweet perfume lingered in the air for a while.
“Yes, yes, Coco,” said the lady, caressing the dog wiggling in her arms. “We’re almost home now. We will have a nice supper and then you will take a nice scented bath…”
“Excuse me,” said Emily, watching as the lady opened the doors of the house next to her. Green door, white windows. “Do you think you could help me?”
As if it would have felt Emily’s dislike, the dog came sniffing her feet, and then raised one leg, and… oh, my…
“GOD!” cried Emily, not believing her eyes.
“Oh no, no, no, Coco!” said the lady at the same time. “I am, oh so sorry! Please, let me make it up to you, she said, raising a 20 dollar bill and handing it to her. Please take it! Get it cleaned properly!”
A burst of laughter came behind her and the lady turned to a very flirtatious voice in a blink of an eye.
“Oh, Jackson… look at what my little Coco did to this poor young lady… I am flabbergasted!”
“Perhaps Coco should receive a medal for best action against tourists leaving their luggage whenever wherever. Time for them to understand that this is our home, not just a photo attraction.”
Emily did not have the heart to turn; besides, it was not even necessary. She knew that voice. Oh, and she already hated that voice.
“Jackson, do not be mean to this poor child… Tell me, love, how may I be of help?”
“Turn around and to your left, you’ll find a taxi station. For sure it can take you somewhere else,” offered the so-called-Jackson, as known as the bane of her existence.
Emily ignored his snide and answered the lady who in the meantime grabbed Coco by the leash and was holding it far from the leaky luggage with her foot.
“I am looking for my great-uncle, Colonel Maximus-”
“You’re Max’s niece?!” said the voice behind her in utter shock.
The lady clapped her hands and said:
“Oh, you must be little Emily! Oh, oh, please, you must come inside for a drink. Your uncle is not here.”
“Little Emily?” said Jackson, and Emily wished he would leave already.
“What do you mean uncle Max is not here? Where is he? He should have been expecting me…”
The lady tilted her head to the side and whispered:
“He received a call yesterday. That is all we know. Right, Jackson? He gave us the keys and asked us to welcome you, well… he said little Emily, anyway… and help you get accommodated until he will be in contact again.”
“No…” said Emily, all of a sudden wanting to curl into a ball and cry.
“Jackson, you have the key, right?” said the lady. “Oh, and I am Miss Marianne. I live right next door from you and Jackson.”
Emily turned pale. She felt the need to sit. She and that… man… would have to share a damn roof? Noooo… Oh, was it too late to book a hotel room on the other side of Philadelphia? Or perhaps fly back to London until her uncle would come back?
“Now, let’s get you inside, it looks like it’s getting ready for another reprise of rain. We had some weird weather lately,” said Marianne, grabbing her by her elbow and motioning to Jackson to pick up her bags.
“Come on now, dear old Jacky boy, take the lady’s suitcase. And careful with those flowers, now!”
She should have at least enjoyed the face the man had when he was forced to carry the leaky bags inside, but the absence of her uncle upset her. She needed Uncle Max more than anything that day and she found an empty house, well, it would have been better if it would have been empty…
“It’s on the second floor,” said Marianne guiding her on the narrow stairs. Oh, it’s so good to have a man in the house, that’s what I say! I was spoiled having my husband with me for more than 40 years, and now, I’m with these two fine gentlemen, right next door on the alley, oh, a man is always such a help. Don’t you think?”
When they reached the second floor, Marianne turned on her heel and yelped.
“Oh, sweet mama of… I forgot Coco! Love, Jackson will take good care of you, and after you settle in, come for a drink and a home-cooked meal. I am at home most of the day, except for mornings and late-afternoons when I am waking Coco. Cius!”
Emily felt like she will burst into laughter when she watched the old lady running down the stairs her coat trailing behind her like a superhero cape, on the way to save her precious Coco. Then she met her neighbour’s gaze and lost her appetite for laughter.
“You can leave them down, I’ll manage from here. Thank you,” she said bitterly. It was a hard thank-you for sure.
“I cannot leave it down. It is still leaking, and the carpet is original, so we must get them to the bathroom and then I can put them down.”
That was it. Seeing Jackson holding the suitcase so close to him, his coat drenched in Coco’s dejections, and the priceless look on his face, contorted in utter disgust, she gave in. Emily sat down on the stair and burst into laughter, tears falling down her cheeks, and gasping for air.
“Why-why on Earth are you laughing?”
His question started another laughter fit, and she got up, drying her cheeks with her hand and opened the door to let him in. After he dropped the suitcase on the marble floor, he turned around to leave.
Emily handed him the 20 bucks from Marianne and when he looked incredulously at her, she said, before closing the door in his face:
“To properly clean your coat.”
Ten Sleeps Wyoming- R’s story
The floorboard creaked, and he muttered under his breath. Stopped in his track and listened. No sound. No other sound but the soft breaths of the others still asleep. He took another step, carefully avoiding the sharp corner of a comforter and stepping on the same creaky old wood.
While grabbing his camera bag, he wished he had the inspiration to charge it the night before. But he had been so engrossed in thoughts; he forgot. It was not the first time lately when he forgot to do things he should have.
It was pitch black outside, the crescent moon just looming over his head, not in the mood to make his escape easier. Some stars were creeping down between the clouds, winking at him.
Opened and closed the door with one swift move, knowing that if he would have opened it wide, it would hit the chair behind it. The last thing he wanted was to wake them up and have to explain himself. He just wanted to creep out to his escape.
There was a chill in the air, and he revelled at the thought that soon it will be fall. However, until then, there would still be some scorching days to get through.
As he put his camera bag on the passenger’s seat, he took in a good breath, as if to test his lungs. And again, deeper this time, and third time to clear his head as well as his soul. Three was the magic number after all.
The road was empty in front of him and he enjoyed the drive, only seeing some shadows and hills on the side of the road. That moon was bent on not helping him. As he drove with the window down and in total silence, he started to feel more and more like himself, more than he had felt lately.
Being out on the road did that to him and he chastised himself once more for not doing it more often. It was as he had been somehow punishing himself for already being down. The human mind was a true abyss and trying to understand it and make sense of it was a real Sisyphus’ job. Not to mention how exhausting was to always try to understand the whats, the whys and the hows.
He was getting closer to his spot. Well, not exactly his spot, but he has been there before and he had seen the beauty. That would reboot his mood and would make him crawl out of that depression hole he has dug for himself a while ago. Or so he hoped. Manoeuvred his car carefully off the road, on to the not so beaten path and after a while, he pulled to stop. The moment he killed the lights, he found himself surrounded by darkness. But with every second his eyes grew more accustomed to the little light coming from above, throwing shadows all around him. He could make out the shapes of the rolling hills and even if he could not see them properly, he knew they were of many many shades of red soil and green trees and bushes were sprinkled here and there in a playful contrast.
As the morning began to break, he felt chills of excitement crawling under his skin, making him shiver.
When the first sun ray touched the ground, the reds have exploded. Ocre, umber, burnt sienna, terra rossa as he knew it from the Renaissance paintings.
Within a few moments he could see the horizon, still muddied, still sleepy, but there, at his fingertips. He took his camera out and took a photo. The sun rays rested on the hill in front of him, lightning it up as it was on fire. The valley beneath it held the village still asleep. Even the name of the village was somehow connected. Ten Sleeps Wyoming. Population of 300. And while his mind went straight to the “How Ten Sleeps Got its name” post, and that made him chuckle. Some things will never stop being funny. And people from the past really had a dry sense of humour well hidden in platitudes. Only children these days would count the time to an event by counting sleeps. And that was quite funny.
He could now see clearly the Signal Cliff and wondered what would have looked like back in the days when communication was not done through invasive technology that occupied 23.5 hours of your day but was only used for that… communicating important, vital, and meaningful information.
That place did not change for thousands and thousands of years. People have come and people have gone, from Sioux tribes to pioneers, to modern man… From people manoeuvring bows and arrows to people manoeuvring lassos and then smartphones and climbing gear. They were all little flies, living for a second, marvelling at the sight and disappearing the other. But what a sight!
Looking like a painting, the Ten Sleeps Canyon was a timeless beauty, and he was blessed to have seen it. Not just once in his life, but twice. And he was grateful for his eyes to see what he was seeing, for his legs to take him places, for his mind to make him want adventure, for his soul to crave adventure. He was grateful for the means to travel and to explore. For the stories, he had found all those years of his life and for all those that were on the way. He was humbled by the thought that he was undeserving, and yet so showered with beauty.
He felt himself being part of something bigger than him. Being part of the Sioux tribes and of the pioneers’ caravans, the cowboys’ journeys and the small villagers living the hardship of life, there, in the midst of it all. In the midst of eternity.
He took another deep breath in and when the sun finally fell on his face; he felt happy.
An Oxford Story – Creative Writing Course story
Marco shuffles his papers once again. That is organised chaos, or at least it is what he wants to think. His entire coffee table is covered with papers of layouts and post-its, all smeared with coffee and tea. His work of the past two and a half months is spread in front of him, and he is proud.
Although he still misses the most important articles and the photos, the anniversary edition is coming to life.
Makes another note on top of the second page and takes a sip of coffee. He drops the cup with a screech in its saucer and frowns when he sees the looks he gets from the next table. Usually, at this time of day, he would be alone in St. Mary’s courtyard. But, with the weather that day, all souls in Oxford are out, gathered in loud, cheerful groups, everywhere there is a green patch of grass, to his utter disgust.
His stomach growls, and he realises it’s been a while since his last meal. And the sun is already getting low. Its warm light caresses the crenellated turrets of the College and the ancient stone blushes under it, like an old lady with a new suitor.
Another group comes from Radcliffe Camera, eyeing his table, but he does not acknowledge their presence so he won’t be forced to share the crowded corner. He is not happier when the young people sit on the grass, their faces turned to the spring sun, chatting and ignoring the freckles that threaten to appear on their too pale faces.
He pulls his pipe out of the pocket and fiddles with the tobacco for a while, thinking about his own piece meant for the first page.
His will to write and his lovely muse disappeared anyway at the first glimpse of the blue sky that morning. Not that he had any the day before when the floodgates were wide open.
After over two weeks of research and documenting in the forgotten archives of the Bodleian, he barely has half of the article penned down. None of his previous articles took so long and wonders if he used all his words in the short stories he is writing for the Secret Literary Society. Oh, those silly things are coming to him all day and night long, without pause.
Marco takes another sip of cold coffee and sighs. The scone looks as if it had been made a week ago and left to dry out in the sun, all brittle and crumbly. Without a thought he dips it in the coffee, eyeing the disapproval of the guy next to him. As payback for that indiscreet look, Marco drops the scone into the cup and pushes it down until the dark liquid engulfs it whole. When he leaves the poor scone alone, it rises to the surface with a hat of coffee grounds, leaving Marco and his watcher even more disgusted.
Gathering his papers, he pushes the glasses on top of the nose and gets up. He can see the faces of the people sitting on the grass lighting up, as he passes them by. He leans over and says with the heaviest accent he can muster:
“Order some scones. They are bloody amazing today!”
As he makes his way around Radcliff, passes through the Tower of the Five Orders and soon he finds himself inside the Bodleian, at his favourite desk surrounded by archives of the Founders of the College. Marco immerses himself in work for another couple of hours before he gives up all hopes to finish by midnight.
The library is almost deserted at that time of the night, and when he closes the registry it echoes. His phone vibrates, and he takes it to the window to get more signal. The walls of the Bodleian were not built to allow the enemies of the books in, be it even in digital form.
His eyes scan the text, but his mind refuses to accept what he is seeing. That is not humanly possible. All the gods are against him and all the forces of nature are working to hinder his attempt to meet the deadline. He pushes the anger down and mutters a few unholy words before returning to the desk and picking up his mess. Then he storms out the hall and runs to the College’s dorm, and he finds it in an uproar. So, it is true. He is screwed.
“Have you heard about the Smiths?”
“A terrible accident!”
“The entire family hospitalised!”
“They were in their final year, no?”
“Aren’t they in charge of the whole Centennial?”
“What exactly happened?”
Marco makes his way to the common room. The Dean is already there, trying to quiet the noise of the crowds gathered there as at a revolution.
“Silence, all! If you want to know what happened, then you’ll all be silent!”
Marco finds his roommate and they both get closer to the Dean.
“As you have already heard, the Smiths had a boating accident and they are all hospitalised in Addenbrooke’s.” Ignoring the shouts and protests of the room, the Dean continues: “They’re all under the best care of the doctors, and no one is in immediate danger. We will know more in due time. Until then, proceed to your works and continue as planned. There is no need to panic. I know the Smiths were involved in the Centennial, but I believe you are all capable Ladies and Gentlemen to carry on.”
“Involved? Is he serious?” asks Marco. “The Smiths practically ran the show on this stupid anniversary, and now we have to carry on without them? How can I submit this special edition of the newspaper without the work of three of my writers and the main photographer?! What am I supposed to do? Write it all myself? It’s not like I’m having an easy time with the editor’s piece.”
“Mr Batista, if the editor’s job is too much for you, I would gladly start searching for your replacement. Even now, in the twelfth hour, I can find at least half a dozen capable candidates ready to take over. Should I be contacting them?”
Marco turns faster than he thought he was capable of and faces the Dean.
“No, Dean. I can do it, Dean. Do not worry! We’ll have the newspaper delivered in time to the printers, Dean.”
“Good. As this year is an important time for all of us, I would suggest, Mr Batista, to work hard and not let me down. Nor the people who invested in your education at this fine school! They will all be here on Friday to witness the one hundred anniversary of the College! Even my mentor, the Dean Emeritus will come this year! So, prove you’re capable of more than sarcasm and meaningless tattoos. All hands on deck, Mr Batista, all hands on deck!”
“That was way too soon,” says Marco pained, watching the Dean leaving the room. He then turns to his colleague and says, “Are you kidding me right now?”
With new hopes for the day, Marco wakes up and packs his bag. Grabs his pipe and tobacco and runs to the library. He passes by the river where the College rowing team is debating what to do now with two Smiths out of the race, then by the main gate where his colleagues are gathered in groups debating what care packages to send to the Cambridge hospital.
When he gets to the Bodleian, he finds his favourite spot already taken, and he curses under his breath the chain of coaches dropping tourists every five seconds on the already crowded streets of the city.
“Bloody sun!” he says and goes down the stairs to the archives. He’ll camp there for the day, protesting against the sun, the cheery crowds, and all the Smiths of the world and their love for boats.
He gets down half the article but realises there is no recent photograph of the entire Governing Body, that Smith number three had to submit. He runs up to the photographs section, and he finds that the last one taken was more than half a year ago, and there are three Professors missing. To make things even more complicated, their second photographer is out of campus on an assignment and will not return before the deadline for the printers.
Marco spends his morning trying to gather the materials from his other writers and graphic designers and curses his idea of getting the special edition the old-fashioned way, not using laptops or any other electronic devices. Because of that, he has no drafts, no sketches, no photographs, nothing.
By lunch, he is already spent. An email from the Dean listing a few names that could help him comes, and he goes back to the dorm.
He finds his roommate working on his caricatures in the common room. Marco sees the sketch pad and shakes his head. A sinking boat with the College’s name on it and the Dean on the bow screaming for the Smiths to help him, while the rest of the Faculty members cling to various flotation devices. He bursts into laughter when he sees familiar faces already in the troubled waters, his included, all wearing Centennial medals around their necks, pulling them further down.
“That’s it, Klaus, you’ve lost it. I’ve lost it!” says Marco, dropping on the couch. “Our most beloved College will shut down after the Centennial fiasco. Yes, yes, my friend. We will be the last of its students and it will be a miracle if they will allow us to take the finals.”
He then spends half an hour bickering about the situation he is in, wishing he could pull out of the hat a miraculous solution.
By dinner, he realises he has six articles out of fifteen, half of which are rough drafts. He finds some pictures of the Governing Body from some fundraising event and he makes a collage that he pastes on the layout.
When his colleagues go out after dinner for a drink, he stays in and works some more. Five pages out of fifteen.
“This is terrible!!” he says to no one at all.
Marco collapses into bed, crumbling the papers with his weight and he takes off his glasses. Two indentations are on both sides of his nose and his eyes are sore. All the exhaustion is catching up to him and falls asleep with his clothes on.
An hour later he jumps out of bed, frantically looking for his glasses. Grabs his phone and sends a text to the journalism group, including Klaus there.
“Emergency meeting. I have an idea. It came to me in a dream!”
Until his colleagues arrive, he paces the room, muttering to himself. His eyes are bloodshot, his hair a mess from all the tugging and pulling, his clothes wrinkled and his sleeves up to his elbows, his tattoos showing. His tie is dangling from his neck, all crooked and at some point, he lost a shoe.
“Are you fine, mate?”
“Ah, good! You’re all here!” he shouts when he turns and sees the bleary eye group. “A bit intoxicated, I assume, but that will go marvellously with my idea.”
He ushers them into the room and locks the door behind.
“The Secret meeting of the College’s Newspaper is now in session. No one is to speak until I’m finished! Mary, please take notes.”
Then he paces again, explaining his idea, ignoring the looks he gets from all around the room. When he finishes he is panting. His mouth is dry and reaches for a glass of water.
“That’s madness, Marco!”
“Even from you!”
“I’ll not be part of such a disaster!”
“This is not a bloody prank, Batista!!”
They start leaving and, in the end, he remains with Klaus, Mary, and the little cartoonist that Klaus is in love with.
“I actually think this is a brilliant idea, mate,” Klaus says with a twinkle in his eyes. “Mischievous, tedious and chaotic. Exactly how I like it!”
“Well,” says Marco, rubbing his forehead. “We have one life, might as well be a chaotic one!”
“A true-life motto” laughs Mary, writing it down in her notepad.
“So, we’ll do it?” asks the little cartoonist.
“That only Marco can decide.”
Marco looks at their faces, seeing their eagerness and mischief and nods. He has found his tribe.
“We’re gonna need some help, though.”
He grabs his phone again and sends an “SOS” text to the Secret Literary Society and then puts it face down on the desk. Klaus’ phone buzzes and that makes all of them giggle.
“Time for some ruckus! Let’s go to the meeting place. Oh, and Ladies, you’re now part of the most Secret Society that has ever walked these cobbled stones. Hope you’ll live up to this honour!”
“Oh, you mean your super weird and loud meetings in the coffee shop’s backroom where Klaus works?” laughs the little cartoonist, and Marco thinks he must find out her real name by the end of that ordeal.
“Not so secret, huh?”
“Don’t encourage her,” says Marco, looking for his lost shoe. And finding it he says: “Let’s make history!”
The printers call in the morning about the deadline. Marco tells them that the boy must be trapped somewhere on the road and keeps the man on the phone for another fifteen minutes discussing the hordes of tourists destroying the quiet and peaceful life of their quaint and magical corner of the world.
As soon as the boy leaves the printer’s shop, Marco gets a second phone call.
“Are you sure you want me to print this?”
“Do you have Dean’s approval on it?”
Marco kicks Klaus under the table to shush him. It is true. He called the Dean at five in the morning to get his okay for the printers and the Dean, all groggy and annoyed shouted at him to do his job and not expect others to jump to his aid, as they are all busy with important things.
“All right, lad, here it goes!”
After he hangs up, Marco falls hard on the chair, making it squeak in protest. Mary and Lena- the little cartoonist – are nodding off on the couch, surrounded by notepads and sketches. Klaus is downing another mug of coffee by the window and two more boys are whispering about their night. All have smiles on their faces, including the sleepy girls.
Marco takes one good look at them all and leaves. He needs a cup of tea and a scone. And prays that the sun will stay hidden that morning so he can enjoy reading in that secret corner at St. Mary’s.
When he returns to the dormitory, long after lunch, he finds his phone dead. While he showers the remains of the night, he leaves the phone to charge and, by the time he is dressed, he is ready to take on the day. Opens a pack of crackers and starts munching on them.
A light on his phone tells him he has some messages. Or twenty, by the looks of it. Several from his group, two emails marked urgent and one missed call. Dean’s office.
He tries to postpone the inevitable and starts with the emails. Both from The Office. He opens them in separate windows and stops chewing. Doesn’t know if to laugh or to cry. At that point, both seem to be valid choices.
“Mr Batista, you are cordially invited to have Breakfast with the Alumni to start the week of celebration of the Centennial. Starting at 8 a.m., we expect you in the main foyer. Please observe the Formal Robes rule. Dean of College… “
“BATISTAAA! Get to my office immediately with a good excuse for your behaviours or a psychiatry slip explaining them.”
He runs. His coat flails at his back like the wings of a dark angel. Phone in hand and without glasses, Marco crisscrosses the campus to get to the Dean’s Office, staying clear of the manicured lawns. On a normal day, he would have paid little to no attention to the “do not step on the grass” signs, but today is not an ordinary day.
He pants by the time he climbs the stairs to the second floor. The secretary’s face does not show good news… Nothing good comes also from the inside of the office, where the Dean shrieks at someone on the phone, and as the conversation goes, Marco gathers it is the printer’s office. Something about approvals of the newspaper and stopping the print and then the room gets quiet.
When the door opens, both he and the secretary jump out of their skins. In the threshold, Dean of the College is looking at him.
“So that’s what if-eyes-could-kill looks like” mutters Marco, while he is not so cordially invited in the blue and grey office.
In fifteen minutes of yelling and shrinking, one done by the Dean and the other by the student, the door opens and the secretary leads in an old man, wearing the formal robes of a Professor, leaving both of them perplexed.
Marcus rises from his slump to his feet in one move and tries to put his clothes in order. The Dean is now at the side of the older man and shakes his hand with vigour.
“Such an honour to see you again in my humble office.”
“Yes, well, this was my office first, if I remember correctly, George,” says the elder. “Not exactly liking this peculiar sense of decorating you seem to possess.”
While his eyes take the room in, his left eyebrow raises to the hairline.
“If you’re running my College with the same peculiar taste, there’s no wonder you got yourself in such a mess. Yes, of course, I’ve heard.”
Then he turns to Marco, measures him with one look and gets around the desk to sit on the chair, making squishy sounds.
“Leather. Yes, nothing but the best for the best tushy. Understandable. Protecting one’s better parts.”
If Marcus wouldn’t know better, he would have laughed. But the look on the Dean’s face is even funnier, so he stifles a giggle. Marcus has decided he likes the old man.
“So, I gather he’s the culprit?”
The Dean nods, shooting Marcus a death glare.
“And what punishments we are discussing? Expulsion? Taking away his scholarship? Criminal charges?”
With that, Marcus decides he does not like him anymore.
Twisting in his chair, the old man gets from his coat a ruffled newspaper, and Marcus wants the floor to open and swallow him whole.
It is not just a newspaper, but the Centennial one, fresh out of print. It even smells of wet ink. How did the old guy grab a copy so fast?
“I particularly liked this one right here,” Dean Emeritus says, putting one shrivelled finger on the caricature of the sinking ship. “The artist really captured your essence, George. Even with all the fuss around, you still keep perfect hair and posture. And scream for help to the Smiths, of course.”
Marcus wants to smile again, but he is cautious. The old man is sharper than thought, and he is not yet certain if that is a good or a bad thing for him.
“Anyway, let’s talk punishment. I delight in punishments, as you can remember.”
“Certainly, Dean Emeritus, ” says the Dean, closing the door. “Quite peculiar ones,” he then mutters to himself.
“Stop with the Emeritus bull, George, I am not dead yet. You shall both call me Dean. It’s simpler. That clear?”
“Yes, Dean,” they both say at once.
“Good, good. I have decided on the punishment before arriving here, anyway.”
The current Dean scowls, he had something in his mind as well, and he knows from experience it is not in the same registry as the old man’s.
Marco’s shoulders straighten, his heart skips a beat or two, and his breathing gets fast. That is the end. The end of his bright future and high hopes for himself. That is goodbye to the research program he applied to and arrivederci to the English countryside.
“I need a driver. Fired the fopdoodle-quisby-saddle-goose-one you sent me last week. He has no respect for classic cars. He’s better off driving some white-shoes tourists, cameras dangling from their necks, maps in hands in coaches than touching fine delicate masterpieces.”
Marco’s eyes are popping out of his head and his mouth is open wide.
“Even though, looking at him, all fish-out-of-water-gape-mouth, I doubt he will be better, anyway. But since you insist I take part in these stupid celebrations, I need a driver. This one will have to do.”
Without another word, the old man gets up and is by the door before Marco or the Dean can make a move.
“Come along now, boy. We need to get going. Goodbye, George.”
Marco runs after him, while the Dean falls into a chair, his head in his palms. The secretary goes to open the door, but the cane of the Professor stops her.
“Thank you, Lass. I have a helper now. Let’s go, boy. Time waits for no one.”
Marco opens the window, letting the air in.
In the back-seat, the Professor sleeps, after a stop at a pub. Marco sees his hands grasping the newspaper, and he wants to pull on the side of the road and touch the anniversary edition with his own hands. It was not supposed to be out until Thursday and his hands are itching.
They are driving out of Oxford, as the old man has a cottage in the countryside.
Marco follows the GPS on his phone and soon the asphalt makes way to brick and, at the end of the journey, to grass alleys in need of a trim.
Unsure what to do, if he should wake him up or not, Marco gets out of the car and stretches his bones. He looks at the surroundings and sees behind the cottage, the hills and the forest covering them. A blue sky shines above and he thinks all his troubles started with a sunny day.
“Boy! Help me out! Why d’you let me sleep in the car? My entire body is in pain. I’m not a bloody tourist on a bus, sleeping with drool on my face. I need a proper bed!”
Marco helps him get out of the car and they both wobble on the stone steps to the porch. A maid welcomes them and takes the arm of the old man, inviting Marco inside, away from the heat.
When she comes back, he can see her fading beauty and her joyful smile on her face.
“He gave you a hard time?”
Marco nods and she smiles even deeper.
“But he also saved me from being expelled, so I guess I should be grateful.”
“And are you?”
Marco shrugs and ponders for a while at the question. She serves him tea and sandwiches and he eats them, leaving the tray clean.
He spends the day reading and meandering in the garden, and by sunset, he also catches a nap in the rocking chair on the porch, when he is wakened by a smack on his shoulder.
“Boy! What you’re doing still here? Why you’re not back in Oxford, turning your brains into mush like all the others your age?”
“You-you… Oh, for the heavens’ sake, go home and come tomorrow evening for the bloody dinner with the Governing body.”
“But I drove your car here…”
“That means you know how to drive it, right? Come back tomorrow. And if you get a scratch on my car…”
Marco does not wait for another word and runs for his life out in the alley, afraid he might be called back.
He does the drive back to the cottage in silence.
The visit to the Dean’s office that morning left him even more puzzled.
Apparently, his life depends on getting the Dean Emeritus in one piece and on time to all the events.
Somehow Marco knows that would not be the easiest task in the world. The echoes of the special edition of the newspaper were only increasing, and he stayed low all morning, trying to avoid the death glares of the Journal Committee, also taking fire from the Dean for allowing Marco to have his way.
All in all, he was happy to be out of the dorm and out of Oxford, even with the grim perspective of that evening.
The moment he parks on the alley, the rain is falling down with anger. As if the good-old- moody weather of Britain has decided to make a comeback, after being on holiday for a couple of days. Marco thinks with the returning of normality, maybe his life will turn again on a better path.
“No, Dean, I’m not. You said to be here at five, it is ten to five.”
“That means you’re early.”
Marco decides the fight is not worth it and sits on the porch, waiting for the Professor to get dressed. The maid is running around the house getting his clothes and his formal robes.
When they are finally ready, the rain turns into a thunderstorm and the sky lights up and booms as if there are fireworks.
“Quickly, boy, I do not want to get wet.”
Marco helps him to the car and then goes up again to pick up his formal wear and the suitcase from the maid.
“Please take good care of him tonight,” she whispers handing him the gloves. “He hasn’t slept at all last night and hasn’t eaten all day. I worry about him.”
Marco nods, wondering why she would tell him that, and gets back to the car, putting the clothes on the seat next to him. In the backseat, the Professor is fast asleep.
They drive back to Oxford through the thunderstorm, the young one alert and stressed, the old one asleep and relaxed. When they reach the bridge, there are police lights and a huge bus stopped across it, at an impossible angle. It forces Marco to pull on the side of the road and, the moment the engine stops, the Professor awakes.
“Are we there yet?”
“N-no,” says Markus, trying to see through the window shield.
“Then why are we stopping?”
“There’s been some kind of accident, by the looks of it.”
“By the looks of it?” the old man scoffs. “Go and check.”
Marco gets out of the car in the torrential rain and struggles to open the umbrella. A knock on the window alerts him to work faster, and he tosses the umbrella back in the car, lifts his collar and runs to the police officer who is talking to a couple.
“Yes, we are now working on getting the coach off the bridge, but we cannot get the truck here faster as there is impossible traffic in Oxford. Some big college anniversary. All roads are blocked and the truck cannot get here taking the secondary roads. We’re working on it.”
When Marco tells the news, the Professor says:
“Well, the truck cannot get through the little roads, but we can. I will not miss a fancy dinner, as I have prepared for it, bathed, clothed and all, for some rain. Step on it, how you young lads are saying.”
Following the indications of the man behind him, Marco is manoeuvring the tiny car on back alleys and forgotten roads, getting closer and closer to the city.
“We’ve got a flat tire.”
The sentence coming from behind him makes him grip the wheel with both hands.
“How can you tell that?”
A short kick in the chair tells Mario to stop.
“I’ve been driving this car for most of my life. I think I know when something is wrong with it, don’t you think?”
Marco doesn’t answer and gets out of the car. He checks the tires and at the last one, there is a big rusty nail stuck in it. He swears and opens the truck.
“Don’t bother. There is no spare tire. There hasn’t been one in decades.”
They call road help and when the man comes; he salutes the Professor and changes the tire in two minutes.
“Ah, I love cars,” the man says to Marco. “I can disassemble and assemble them with my eyes closed. Tiny cars, big cars, old and new, it does not matter. All right, now on your way, and take care. For anything, call me. I’m working on the damaged coach bus all night!”
Marco gets in the car and steps hard on the gas pedal. When they arrive at the College’s parking lot, the Dean and the Secretary are waiting for them.
“You’re done, boy! It looks like you’ll have nothing left to do but get a job driving buses full of uncivilised and uncultured hordes,” smirks the Professor when the Dean approaches.
Marco slumps by the car, unable to take another step, watching as trio enter the dining hall away from the rain. He is finished and there is nothing he can do to save himself.
His colleagues find him wandering in the garden and convince him he could use a drink.
While he tells them the story of the past few days, they laugh and shout, making him feel a little better about life. And when Klaus mentions the end-of-year prank, he suddenly gets an idea. If he’s going to be kicked out, he might as well go in style.
After he makes a phone call, he comes back inside and nods. His colleagues cheer and stomp their feet, phones already in hand calling for reinforcements.
The hall’s painted windows are shining coloured lights, but the courtyard is halfway hidden by a row of trees.
Klaus lured the guards out, promising them to be mentioned in the Mischievous’ Almanacks, and he is now on the fence shining lights into the lawn where the others are working fast. Even working under pressure, their faces shine bright. Marco has outdone himself.
They considered the newspaper work to be his greatest, but they did not expect this one.
The costumes department comes, hands stacked with clothes, that they use to dress the mannequins of the theatre department of a close-by College, that agreed to lend them in exchange for being mentioned for posterity.
Like a magnanimous king, Marco is granting wishes all around and surveys the tasks of all the people. He laughs when he sees two of the Smiths, in crutches hurrying down the alley, carrying the Centennial flag. Behind them, a car is pulling the missing piece, and Marco forgives all the problems they caused him.
At that moment, he feels too merciful not to grant leniency to his subjects.
When the hymn of the College is played, they all shriek. They are almost done, and the prank is going to be epic.
The doors open and they all run for cover, turning the lights off the lawn. Marco remains in the courtyard, as the people from the Governing Body climb down the stairs in utter amazement.
There is no other word uttered, but it is enough. Marco knows.
“What is this?”
“Why is it so dark?”
Marco makes his way to the Dean and Dean Emeritus and, when he reaches them, they turn the lights back on, and the Professors gasps.
In the middle of the perfectly manicured lawn sits a bus, and behind it, a boat with the Centennial flag flown. The bus is filled with mannequins wearing formal robes and pictures plastered on their faces. The Professors closer to the bus can see their own faces printed there, and from the driver’s face, the picture of Marco Batista winks at them.
“Where to, Professor?” he asks the old man as the Dean looks at them with mouth wide open.
In the silence that fells after his words, a burst of single laughter erupts. A burst of laughter unknown to Marco to that point, a heavy, thrilled, deep-rooted belly laughter, contagious and booming. A loud cheer erupts from the students gathering around the bus and soon, the whole courtyard is filled with joy and mischief. The mechanic laughs as well, and gets on the bus and honks a few times, making the crowd cheer even louder.
“Into the research program, Master Batista, straight into the research program,” says the old Professor, and Marco shakes his hand laughing louder than all.