The Professor

A short story about an egotistical man and his wife

The emcee stood off to the side of the stage in darkness and in a rented tux. Standing in amongst the clutter of the backstage area he swallowed a choke as he tried to clear his throat quietly. Reaching into his jacket pocket he felt the thick stack of note cards there and shut his eyes for a moment, allowing the cool calm of their presence to wash through him. He turned to his side and gestured to the drama student stooped over the lighting board. He removed the note cards from his pocket, gripped them lightly in his hand, and climbed the steps at the side of the stage as the heat and glare of the lights rose all around him.

The auditorium had been prepared with more care than usual for the night’s event. Some attempt had been made to transform this all-purpose university hall space into something with atmosphere and gravitas. The aura of the exam hall, of the amateur concert band performance, had been somewhat successfully erased. The stage was draped symmetrically in blue, white, and gold. At the centre rose a lectern, also draped in fabric and emblazoned with the university’s coat of arms (new enough to be frankly illegitimate, though they were). The distinguished guests were arranged onto round banquet tables clustered near the rise of the stage. The less distinguished guests, a collection of minor faculty personalities and undergraduates who managed to snag a ticket, were thrown together on tables further from the stage. The formalwear became less and less convincing the further one was sat from the stage. Where the distribution of students was highest, at the back of the room, the bottles of champagne were already almost entirely drained. The guests at the front of the room had seemingly mastered the tempo of evenings such as these and moderated their pace on the champagne with aplomb. The audience’s heads rose in union to greet the emcee as he crossed the stage and mounted the lectern.

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. On behalf of the whole faculty I would like to you welcome you all to our campus and thank you all for coming to what is sure to be a thrilling evening. Before I move onto introducing our very special guest, I must say you all look wonderful this evening!”

*

She lay leaning against his side, her hand resting on his bare chest. After a few moment’s quiet contemplation she shuffled under the sheets and propped herself up to kiss him. Her lover lay with his head against the headboard, looking fretfully down at the top of her head throughout. When she saw his pathetic expression a jolt of disdain coursed through her and cooled whatever passion had been rising in her. He’s pretty, she thought, but pathetic. In her mind he was only just young enough to be this pathetic: twenty-two, undergraduate, a plaything.

“Can you go and brush your teeth” she said flatly. His look of concern spasmed for a moment and increased with a new tinge of surprise and embarrassment. “Oh… yeah of course, sorry.” He squirmed out of the bed. The flat was two floors up in Fitzrovia, an area devoid of street life at this time in the evening. She noted that despite that fact, he scurried quickly past the open curtains facing the street; his bare arse was only lit by the orange phosphor of the streetlight for a split-second. Hannah lay back into the warm patch he had left behind and stared disinterestedly into the ceiling. She listened to him scrabble around in his rucksack for his toothbrush, and then pad off to the bathroom across the hardwood floor. She looked at the chips in the quiet, lovely plaster ceiling and her mind wandered. She really would quite like to see Tokyo… Why didn’t his press tours ever take them there? Perhaps there wasn’t a market for self-involved pseudo-intellectuals there. She thought of all the things she’d given up to enable his face on the TV, on billboards. She recalled sitting in a glass and steel boardroom, looking around the table and feeling the respect and fear of those men in suits. Expensive law degrees sitting in a box in the loft. After swilling these thoughts lazily around for a minute or so, she climbed out of bed and slipped a dressing gown over her shoulders.

She walked out of the bedroom, toying with the knot of hair at the back of her head until she extracted a hairband. In the deep navy blue hallway there were framed reproductions of Degas sketches, the ballerinas, hanging at jaunty irregular levels. They were his choice. Almost all of this was his choice, a perfectly crafted image of good taste that came from all too much calculation and all too little passion. Hannah crossed into the bathroom and in the large mirrored cabinets she pulled the kinks out of her hair with her fingers. He froze momentarily beside her — she hadn’t bothered to close her dressing gown — and then continued brushing his teeth. She put her hairband on the sink and met his eye for a moment, enjoying his skittish, sexed gaze. He had a shelf of curly golden hair on top of short back and sides. He had empty blue eyes, a nice square jaw, patches of ruddy skin here and there to put some colour in his face. She imagined that not too long ago he must have looked like a little Aryan wunderkind; now he couldn’t help but look like some Victorian watercolour of some romantic paramour. Her eyes wandered from his face once she caught a vision of his puckered, foamy mouth swirling around the toothbrush handle — and settled on their two bodies. She compared skin samples, the tautness of the stomachs. She concluded that though she was eleven years older, her body was only five or so years ahead. Bored of him again, she wheeled back into the hallway. She looked down the hall at the doorframe of her husband’s study. Superimposed on it in her vision was the image of her own face in the mirror, burned in by the bright lights of the bathroom and lingering now in the dim hallway. Her deep brown hair, chopped youthfully above the shoulders, injected with still a little more youth with tasteful highlights. Her green eyes too, tinting more with brown every year. She shrugged it all off disdainfully as she opened the door to the study.

She flicked the light switch and a miniature chandelier overhead illuminated the room. Dark wood panelling was the theme. It would have been pretty oppressive if they hadn’t been working with high ceilings. But given those ceilings and given the desperate need in her husband to project the right image, he had pressed on with restoring and adding yet more dark wood panels and bookcases. The result was a Churchillian library that elicited quiet awe from her husband’s hangers-on and one life-long eye roll from Hannah’s innards. In the rectangular room, one half was devoted to an imposing desk with two simple chairs at angles in front on it, as if put there to allow for expert consultation with the brain sitting in the leather swivel chair on the other side of the desk. The other half of the room was devoted to two great leather armchairs around a low coffee-table. Hannah had only just managed to pull her husband back from the brink of adorning the coffee table with a cigar box.

The integrated bookshelves were a glorious work of restorative carpentry that housed an armoury of books that were bulk bought and never read. On the shelf behind the desk sat a few copies of her husband’s published works. Were they placed there so that he could perhaps pluck one off to reference in conversation, or even if one was extremely honoured, sign one of them and make it a gift. Hannah shuddered at the thought. She ran her hand along the desk’s top and circled around to the leather chair behind it. She sat; the leather stuck and then warmed under her bare legs. She wondered what he had been frittering around doing to avoid coming in the study.

*

“Now then, to our guest. It bears beginning at the outset of this stunning career. Emerging as a stunningly talented undergraduate at the University of Durham not too many years ago, he was quickly recognised as both ambitious and exacting in his early essays and thesis. Then with his best-in-year First in tow, he went on to postgraduate studies at Downing College, Cambridge and graduated with merits. In his first year of postgraduate study, he somehow managed to write his first world bestselling book. At Downing College, work on his doctorate thesis, which we all now know as his second bestselling book, began. Upon completing his doctorate, he founded his eponymous School of Sciences at The University of Birmingham. In his two years nurturing that fledging school, which now stands apart from other such institutions as a world leader, he also co-produced with the BBC the most successful documentary series of all time…”

He moved the notecard from the front of the stack to the back, revealing the next card: more about the Professor’s television work, then another book, then onto the build-up. The emcee had a little sheen of sweat over his whole body by this point in the introduction, mostly from the heat of the lights — though not entirely. He hadn’t wanted to be the “talent” for this evening. Very few of these people knew who he was, the dean of the College of Sciences at the university. He had cringed when he saw the posters for the talk go up around the campus: “An Evening with the Professor, with an introduction from the Dean of the College of Sciences”. Who cared about his introduction? It had made him feel very exposed in the light of this shooting star, this public genius that was to come out on stage after him. Only a few more cards to go now. He could see through the lights to the front tables, he had them all listening for now. He couldn’t imagine the shame of boring a crowd that was waiting for the Professor. A bead of sweat finally breached his retreating hairline as he began his next line.

*

She called out for her lover from the desk chair. A pause, in which she could hear some distant scuffling. She called him again, louder. She wriggled on the chair for a moment and inspected the sparse items on the desk. A lamp — one of those green glass things that belong in an old bank, an expensive pen. No computer, the laptop lived in the drawer; it wasn’t a part of the desired picture.

He was hovering in the hallway. He had caught himself making the bed, just as something to do with his nerves. Hannah made him nervous. He often enjoyed feeling a little afraid, some shaky voice in his mind delivered the platitude that if you feel afraid you’re probably growing, or something to that effect. Besides, every time he held his mettle in this flat — in that bed, on that floor — he could go back and be the braggadocios one with his classmates. He had gotten quite good at alluding to the identity of his lover, an experienced older woman. He would never reveal who exactly she was, the mere thought sent cold sweats down the recess his spine made in his back. When he had heard Hannah move into the study, he willed with all his might for her to come out. He couldn’t bring himself to go in there, in that big man’s space, inside his wood-panelled brain. Now he was standing in the hallway, looking through the aperture of the open door. When he heard her call the second time he slowly moved down the hall and crossed the threshold… and there she was, sitting behind the desk.

“Don’t you hate it in here? Isn’t it just trying so hard?” She was talking without looking at him. Instead she was pushing the expensive pen around the desk top with disdain. He wished she would look at him, acknowledge the courage he had taken by coming in here with nothing between his body and all the artefacts of masculine success: a framed poster for a hit documentary series, a book prize sitting carelessly on a side board. She must know how much he hated being in here; she could see right into him. All too suddenly she was looking right at him, smiling.

“Let’s do it over the desk.” It wasn’t really a suggestion, nor a question. She was already standing up and beginning to circle.

*

“By the time he was working on the second series of his documentary, the first was beginning to achieve the global success that I’m sure brought our friends from overseas to be with us here with us this evening. Already he was a household name… and to more than would like to admit it, a bit of a heartthrob.”

A ripple of polite female laughs, with a few mens’ tones thrown in.

“However, not content to be typecast as a swashbuckling object of affection for his ever-growing TV audience, our special guest completed work on his next book. Months later that book is still the New York Times Bestseller. The London Review of Books lauded the work as ‘perhaps his magnum opus, a work that both manages to wow the author’s academic contemporaries by breaking new ground in the field and introduce the layman reader to the topic with such flourish as to make his subject the issue of our time.’ I am inclined to agree with them.”

Another ripple of laughter, a little louder this time. A thought clattered into the emcee’s mind: the professor would be at the side of the stage by now, waiting for his cue. He’d be listening to this last part of his introduction in detail. The thought of that single pair of eyes he daren’t check for at the side of the stage boosted his heart-rate far more than the audience in front of him. Just the final introduction now.

*

He returned to the study with a towel, more relaxed now. He barely registered himself crossing through the door frame on the way back into the room. Standing in the middle of the study, between the desk and the armchairs, he rubbed the sweat from his shoulders and back. Hannah rounded the desk once more to retrieve her dressing gown. She laughed at him as he wiped the desk top with the towel and readjusted the banker’s lamp to its original position. Then she settled back in the desk chair and pulled open the top drawer.

“You know he’s working on another book? There’s a printed draft of it in here somewhere.”

He had frozen on the other size of the desk. His hazy confidence melted away and he felt the room drop a little colder. Hannah flicked a look up at him and then carried on with the drawer, pulling out a stack of paper held together with a bulldog clip.

“Oh calm down. Look. He can’t be forgotten for a moment. I think he feels he’d die in a moment out of the spotlight.”

She flapped the manuscript in the air at the end of her assessment and he tried not to flinch. She tossed the thing back into the drawer. Next prop: a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, squarish frames. She put them on and looked at him. She squinted through the prescription lenses; to him it felt like x-ray vision. She puckered her nose coyly, breaking the intensity of the gesture. Sighing, she took the glasses off again and laid them on the desk.

“He’s so fucking monotone. All of this stuff in here it’s the same kind of… expensive… impressive shit.”

She threw the glasses back in the top drawer and slammed it shut. She yanked open the middle drawer with more force. He heard the contents skid and clatter against the front. He came around the desk. Looking over her shoulder he was curious to see if she’d broken anything valuable, something that may have some day been committed to a museum of the life and times of the Professor.

*

“It is for all these reasons and more that we are incredibly honoured to welcome this man to our stage this evening. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome our very special guest… Professor —”

*

Hannah hadn’t broken anything, just thrown around some more expensive pens, a pocket thesaurus, a few opened envelopes, bills. She pushed the drawer back in. It jammed, and had to be wiggled to slide fully shut.

“See? The desk looks marvellous but it’s shoddily made.”

Her anger threw him so he laid a hand on her bare neck to steady himself. She was warm and she didn’t lean away. His fingers could feel the sinews moving under her skin as she leaned over to open the bottom desk drawer. He wondered, does your skin get thinner with age?

The bottom drawer was stuffed full of papers to such an extent that it explained away the drawer above it jamming. Neither of the lovers mentioned this, though they both thought it simultaneously. The top sheet was a scattered page of handwritten notes, the odd diagram. Hannah reached in and pulled a wedge of paper out and dropped it onto the desk. She laid her flattened hand on the top of stack for a moment, thoughtful. He thought that for such a phoney he certainly had amassed a big pile of notes. He stopped, considered his last thought to be completely stupid and imagined himself slapping his own head in reflexive frustration. All of this took place in the stillness of the sheaf of papers on the desk, Hannah’s hand on the papers, Hannah sitting in the chair, her head cocked to the side, her lover standing behind her, his hand on her shoulder. He looked down at the bare bottom of the open drawer. Strange.

Though the drawer was empty and it had been stuffed full moments ago, the stack of papers on the desk didn’t look all that high. Hannah felt his hand slide off her neck and let herself think for a moment that she missed the touch. Quite unaware of himself for a change, he reached down and touched the bottom of the drawer. His fingers hit the bottom early. He ran his hand over the side plate of the drawer; it was deeper than it looked from the top.

Hannah had been watching this with increasing disdain. “Oh well that’s the cherry on the cake. He never told me he had a false bottom put in. Does he think he’s fucking James Bond?”

Hannah word’s slipped past him like acrid smoke on the wind. He dove in with his arm and ran his hand to back of the drawer, where there was a notch cut out of the false bottom. He hooked it with his index finger and lifted the panel away.

*

The dean extended his arm to beckon the Professor, who was already making his way out of the curtains. When he hit the rays of the first stage light the room’s applause swelled and was joined with cheers and whistles. Tangibly balding as he did so, he looked at the Professor turn into the light and smile a broad, beautiful smile. He waved and beamed self-assurance, confidence. His suit fit him better. He even had a pocket square, a little purple thing that twinkled in the light. As he turned to watch his step while he climbed the stairs, the emcee couldn’t help but notice the robustness of his hairline. He had thick black hair styled over to the side with wax, how youthful. And yet, a dusting of grey hairs around his temples telegraphed his wisdom. The Professor was almost upon him now, and the emcee turned to shake his hand. In the back tables, phones that had been idly scrolled through were now up in the air, flashing photos of the stage. In the front tables, even the coolest figures broke out into wide applause as the emcee disappeared off side stage and the Professor mounted the lectern.

*

Hannah wrapped the dressing gown around herself; the last wisps of sex had left the room. Her lover, naked, still rapt by his drive to understand, pulled the panel of the drawer and laid it on the floorboards to his side.

In the hidden section of the drawer was a single brown A4 envelope that was bulging with its contents. It was placed in the centre of the drawer so that it left a dark brown border of wood around its edge. It had no writing, no markings on its front. In his compulsive state, he picked it up.

*

The Professor smiled and looked down with a sort of display of humility as the round of applause grew into a standing ovation for much of the room.

*

Hannah bubbled up from the most viscous depths of her daze and plucked the envelope from his hand. She turned it over, blank all over. The strangeness of this object, of its place, had drained the spleen from her. It felt as if it could be full of photographs. What about that made her feel sick? What about that made the blood withdraw from her extremities, roar past her ear drums? Her lover’s figure became indistinct beside her. The room around her dimmed. Can a man’s being insufferable hide his being something worse?

*

The Professor smiled and raised his hand to marshal the end of the ovation. He gripped the top of the lectern, cleared his throat, and began his speech.