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Peter's Stories


Peter G. Knight 1999

Murray Theakestone is in Greenland, lying in his tent, writing by the light of a candle. "April 3rd, 8 p.m., -6° C." There are splinters of dry snow pecking at the outside of the tent, and the candle light sparkles among the crystals of frost growing inside the canvas roof. There is not a soul within a day's walk of his camp, and Murray, alone in a thousand square miles of frozen wilderness, is in love. 
Kate Sullivan is in a railway carriage somewhere between Manchester and Crewe, enjoying the evening sunshine that streams through the window as she waits for her slowly moving train to complete its journey. Kate has never been to Greenland, has never heard of Murray Theakestone, and does not believe that she has ever been in love. She has no idea that all of these conditions are to be rendered temporary by the events of the next 24 hours.
 Kate re-reads for what must be the hundredth time the letter she received from Middleton. She always tries to be meticulous in her preparations for everything that she does, checking every detail over and over again. Every scenario must be foreseen, prepared for and rehearsed in her mind until every possible decision that might arise is considered, and every possible outcome given careful thought. To Kate, any misfortune that arises by carelessness or oversight is a personal failure: an unforgivable lapse of personal responsibility. Today more than most days she wants to be absolutely prepared, but today, unusually, she knows that she has let herself down. She has not done nearly enough work to be ready for this interview.

Dear Dr Sullivan,
With reference to your application for the position of Senior Lecturer in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Middleton University, I am pleased to invite you for interview in the department on April 4th. You will see from the enclosed information that your interview is scheduled for 10 a.m., but I would be pleased if you could arrive at my office by 8.30, as I have arranged for you to have breakfast, and a tour of the department, before the interview. Accommodation has been arranged for the night of the 3rd as per the accompanying note.
Yours Sincerely,
Bill Drummond. 
(Head of Department.)

 The letter was signed with Drummond’s name, not just initialled by a secretary. Kate stared minutely at the signature. Was it a rubber stamp? No, he had evidently signed it himself. Hmmm, the personal touch. A hands-on man. A good honest straightforward name, too. Bill Drummond. Bill, not William. She looked again at the small print beneath the Department logo at the top of the page. Head of Department Professor W. F. Drummond M.A. (Oxon.) Ph.D. She looked again at the signature. Bill Drummond sounded a much more  welcoming host than Professor W. F. Drummond. 
 Kate’s lack of preparation preyed on her mind. She should have phoned the department in advance and talked to this chap Drummond about the job. She should have got hold of a Middleton prospectus, or their annual report, and found out about the place. She could at least have asked around at home to see if any of her colleagues could tell her anything. She didn’t know anyone from Middleton, she had never visited the department before, and she was not even confident that her qualifications matched up to the requirements of the post. What on Earth was she doing going to an interview? Her whole application had been a wild shot, aimed more at scaring her current Head of Department into offering her an opportunity for promotion than at actually moving to Middleton. She had never anticipated being called for interview, but now that her application was being seriously considered, Kate was not the sort of person to give any less than her best. The problem was that she had been given virtually no notice of the date of the interview. A phone call from the Personnel Department on Tuesday, the letter from Drummond on Wednesday, and the interview on Friday. Having to travel the day before the interview to make the early start, there had been very little time to get herself prepared, and in that same time she had to prepare also for an annual appraisal by her own Head of Department which might, in the long run, turn out to be more important than her excursion to Middleton. She leafed once more through the papers that accompanied Drummond’s letter: a map of the University with the location of the department marked with the same friendly pen that signed the letter; a copy of the short job outline that Kate had already seen before she first applied for the post; and a notice from the University accommodation office indicating that Dr. K. Sullivan would spend the night of April 3rd in room G101 of Invergordon Hall. “Not much to go on, Bill” said Kate out loud. There was not  even any indication of what form the interview would take, or whether candidates would be expected to make a formal presentation. Kate, of course, was prepared for any such eventuality, but it seemed to her that the whole procedure was very irregular. And what on Earth was this arrangement for a breakfast appointment? “What the hell am I doing, Bill Drummond?” She shoved the papers back into their envelope and started to gather up her belongings  as the train moved into the station.

In his diary, in Greenland, Murray wrote: "I am not a famous explorer. These are not the note books of a Thesiger, or a Shackleton. The journeys they describe didn't change the world, or our understanding of it." He paused for a moment, scribbled out, and wrote again: "The journeys they describe changed no one's understanding of the world but my own." He stopped again, and watched a dribble of wax congeal on the side of the candle. “Sod him,” he said aloud. “Sod Bill Drummond!”  He drew a line through the whole page, and thought about going outside for a pee.

 Kate arrived at Middleton just after six o’clock. She reported at the accommodation office to collect  the keys to her room, and with the help of Bill Drummond’s map she navigated across the campus to Invergordon Hall. The University was still in vacation time, and populated mainly by business conference delegates. In her interview suit, and carrying an executive overnight bag as well as her leather valise, Kate did not look out of place among the well groomed young sales managers, health service administrators and  corporate trainees that milled about trying to locate the bar, the restaurant, their newly-met colleagues from the provincial offices or, in Kate’s case, her room and the en-suite bath that had been rising to greater and greater prominence in her mind as her journey had stretched towards its conclusion. She had no intention of tracking down any bars or restaurants tonight, thank you very much. She had a small bottle of more than adequate single malt scotch in her overnight bag, the prospect of a steaming hot bath in which to enjoy it, and an urge to have just one last look through that envelope of unforthcoming documents. “I’m going to be ready for you, Bill!” As she lowered herself into the water, and leaned back comfortably with a glass of scotch on one side of the bath and Drummond’s letter on the other, those were her last words before she slipped into a warm and steamy sleep.

 “Bloody Hell!” Kate’s eyes snapped open.
 A second knock on the door, ever so slightly firmer than the first.
 “Dr. Sullivan?”
 Kate shot upright in the lukewarm water, whiskey glass toppling off the edge of the bath onto the carpeted floor, Bill’s letter sliding gracefully, like a liner at its christening, into the murky waters.
 “Shit!” Then, raising her voice to call to the visitor, “Just a minute.”
 She groped under the water to retrieve the letter, and holding it carefully by one corner like a photographer handling a wet print in the darkroom she let the water, and much of the ink, drain from it as she stepped out of the bath onto a patch of whiskey sodden carpet. “Damn!” She realised she still had her voice raised, and hissed at herself to shut up. Towel. She had probably left her wallet behind in the accommodation office. Dressing gown. May be she’d left her keys in the door. She called out again “Just one second!” Make sure everything is tied and tucked in. May be someone had phoned a message through from home. Open the door.
 “Sorry, I was in the bath.”
 “Oh dear, I’m terribly sorry, I really shouldn’t have disturbed you.”
 Kate wiped a blur of bathwater out of her eye and regarded the caller. It wasn’t a uniformed Middleton porter as she had expected. It was a tall, slim man, dark haired and slightly tanned, somewhere in his late-forties. He was well dressed but less sharp-suited than most of the conference brigade. He met Kate’s inspection with a slightly crooked, quizzical smile, and Kate was taken aback by the candour of his sharp blue eyes. He reminded her for just a second of Peter O’Toole, or may be Gregory Peck. Suddenly aware of what a mess she must look, Kate brushed a stray lock of hair from her face and wiped her eyes again with the corner of her towel. As she did so, Drummond’s dripping letter slipped out of her hand and landed at the stranger’s feet, steaming ever so slightly and filling the space between them with the faint aroma of lavender bath oil. The man stooped to retrieve it, carefully peeled apart the slippery folds that the paper had crumpled into as it fell, and passed it back to Kate. As she took it he broadened his smile and completely unbalanced her with the words: 
 “I am intrigued to see that you are treating my letter to such luxury. I am sure it didn’t smell like that when I sent it.” 
 He thrust forward his hand. “I’m Bill Drummond.”
 Panic and confusion were not familiar sensations to Kate Sullivan. She spent much of her life taking enormous pains to prevent or avoid situations where they might occur. When her expertise in predicting, preparing and rehearsing situations failed her, however, she had virtually nothing in her armoury of social tactics to handle the surprise attack. It was a major weakness. When she was a child, her characteristic response would be to carry on as if things were still going according to plan, even though they were lurching further and further out of control. In skilled hands this can be an effective strategy, but as an adult Kate was neither practised nor confident with it. For a fraction of a second, while she looked at Drummond’s outstretched hand, she contemplated returning to her bath. She slowly raised her own hand, her mind racing to catch up with the situation. How dare he, outrageous, what must she look like, what a strong hand. Drummond stepped slightly forward, and took Kate’s hand in his as would a father teaching his daughter to shake hands for the first time. “Pleased to meet you, Kate.”
 “Professor Drummond?”
 “Call me Bill. Look, I’ve obviously taken you by surprise, I’m sorry. It’s just that I wanted to check that you were here safe and sound and see if there was anything you wanted to talk about before tomorrow. I was going to ask if you wanted to come for a night-cap in the senior common room, but I can see you are enjoying an evening washing your correspondence, so perhaps I should not disturb you.”
 Kate smiled. Even though she was half dressed and dripping bathwater onto the floor of an unfamiliar corridor in front of a complete stranger there was something about Drummond’s relaxed good humour that put her at ease. Or may be it was those blue eyes and friendly smile. “Well they didn’t put a  tumble drier in the room so I will have to let it drip overnight anyway. If you really have time then a night-cap would be just right.” She pushed her luck, fishing, and was outraged at her self as soon as she began the sentence: “Won’t your family be wanting you home?”
 “I live alone. Anyway, you have a big day tomorrow and you need all the help you can get!”
 This time it was Kate’s turn to smile and look quizzical.
 “I bet you say that to all the candidates.”
 They both laughed.


 The senior common room was deserted apart from the middle-aged man who served at the bar. It was not open to conference visitors, and few of the academic staff made use of the bar in the evenings outside term time. Most of them preferred the more lively atmosphere of the other bars on campus, and the senior common room bar had become a haven of stuffy tranquillity for the more traditional members of the university. “Stuffy old fogies like me” said Drummond, as he gestured Kate towards a plumply overstuffed alcove against the window.
 By now Kate had regained her composure after the initial shock of Drummond’s premature introduction, and was playing her practised role of polite visitor. She inquired about the university, the department, the job, and carefully absorbed the information that Drummond supplied in return. She found Drummond easy to talk too, but was uncertain how to handle him. It seemed odd that a head of department should take one of the candidates out to the bar on the night before the interview.
 “Would it be improper of me to ask how many candidates there are for the post? How many will I be lined up against tomorrow?”
 “Are you sure you want to know? Some people might find it off-putting.”
 “Oh. That many! I guessed there might be a lot.  I supposed that if you were interviewing me you must be looking at a broad range of different people. I feel as if I must be a sort of wild card, because my track record really doesn’t match the post. In fact if I was honest at the beginning that is the one thing I would have asked: what it was that you were looking for that you thought I might have.” She laughed a nervous little laugh.  “I expect that is the question you be asking all the candidates tomorrow!”
 “You will be the only candidate tomorrow.”
 “The others are being interviewed on different days?
 “No. You are the only candidate.”
Kate assumed she was misunderstanding something, and her confusion showed on her face.
 “The department went through all the applications, and each member of staff listed the people that they thought were suitable and those that they thought were unappointable. In fact we eliminated everybody. I then went through the list, taking account of the comments of my colleagues, and produced a shortlist of three candidates which I put forward to a staff meeting. My list was roundly disapproved of, of course, and I gave up on two of the names because there was not one member of the department who was willing to support them. The problem is that everybody is looking for something different in a new appointment. Each person wants something specific to help with their research group or their teaching team or their area of administrative responsibility. Few of my colleagues are able to distance themselves from their personal priorities and consider the needs of the department as a whole. That is my job as Head of Department.
 “So how many were willing to support my name?”
 “You have to understand, Kate, that there are deeply entrenched views in our department. We are going through a difficult time. It would be wrong of me to try to hide that from you if you think of taking the post. We have some good people, but circumstances have left us vulnerable to financial cuts. Our research rating, which is the main indicator that is used to determine the budget allocated to us, does not reflect the potential strength of the department, and if we don’t improve it within the next five years we might be cut right out of existence. The Vice Chancellor would happily see us merged with other science departments into a new School of Environmental Sciences. If that happened, some colleagues would be sure to find themselves out on a limb, shuffled into early retirement or moved sideways into new areas. The support staff are especially vulnerable. The main saving in creating a new school would be that technical and secretarial support could be hugely reduced. University policy has been to concentrate research into research groups within each department. Each research group in our department is determined that they can improve their performance by being given more staff, so they are only interested in appointing people in their own fields of interest.
 “So that would not leave many people willing to support me.”
 “At this stage personal support isn’t the issue. What matters is that you can work with people productively over a period of time. There are areas in the department where the relevance of  your expertise in chemical reactions is immediately relevant to the work already being carried out, and if we can generate high-profile projects that tie these different areas together, that’s how we can lift the department to the level it needs to achieve. The big growth area nationally is environmental issues: climate change, sea-level rise, that kind of thing. At present no one here is working in that area, but we have several people who are on the periphery of it. We have an oceanographer, a hydrologist, and a glaciologist. all working in separate groups at the moment. In fact the glaciologist is working pretty much on his own.  We just need a common theme to bring them together. I want to put together a new Terrestrial Processes Group that will encompass these people under an umbrella of global change. It would be a research cluster and also a teaching team, running environmental modules for the Geology and Geography degree routes.”
 “That’s hardly my expertise! I am a chemist. That’s why I didn’t think that anyone would think me suitable for the job. You don’t do chemistry in your department. I suppose that was my one hope, that you would be looking to develop a new area of research within the department, but from what you have said that would not be a sensible route to take. You need to consolidate, not to diversify. What will these people make of me?”
 Drummond pursed his lips. “That’s hard to say. The one that is going to be hardest to convince is the glaciologist, Murray Theakestone. Murray doesn’t seem to make decisions on the same basis that other people do, and it is sometimes difficult to predict how he will react to different situations. But one way or another all the research groups, and all the individuals in them, including Murray Theakestone, are going to have to take on board some radical rethinking if we are going to lift this department up to the level it needs to reach.”
 “And what about your radical thinking? What made you pick me out of the pile?”
 “As I said, Kate, my job is to consider the needs of the department as a whole. I am not just looking for someone who will be able to add a bit of weight here or there to one or other of the groups. I am looking for someone who has the ability to take a dozen different people in three different research areas and make each of them see that there are opportunities to develop their work in ways that they would not previously have considered. Your expertise in chemistry is ideal. No one in my department could deny the relevance of chemical processes to their field, even if they are not directly involved in chemical issues. A chemist can bring a relevant expertise to all areas of our work.
 “Let me be blunt, Kate. I have looked hard at your CV, and you do not have an established research reputation of your own. You have been busy, and done very well for yourself, but mainly in  teaching and in department administration. Your research is developing, but only slowly. Most departments would only appoint someone at this level who had a strong track record in research, and that just isn’t you. But if we appointed someone like that here they would be just one more empire-builder in a department full of petty kingdoms. I don’t need more chiefs. I don’t even need more indians. I need a peacemaker.  Someone to bring people together.”
 “This might be another improper question, but can you have interviews with only one candidate? What’s the point?”
 If you want the job, then I am not the only person you have to convince to give it to you. Between us we also have to convince the rest of the department, the Vice Chancellor, The Dean of Faculty and the two other panel members. I don’t even know who they will be. I might like to think I run the show and can appoint who I want, but once we get past the stage of shortlisting it really isn’t in my hands any more. It will be up to the interview panel. That’s really why I wanted to talk to you Kate. I didn’t get in touch earlier because I was afraid I might scare you off, but you need to know what it is you would be letting yourself in for, and also how important your performance in the interview will be. You will really have to sell yourself to convince them to appoint you. They could insist that I readvertise and find another candidate. Just because I like you, that doesn’t mean you are home yet!
 “You hardly even know me!”
 “We’ll see. I think I know you better than you imagine.”

 Murray was in his sleeping bag, fully dressed apart from his boots, looking out into the night through the open doorway of the tent. The moon was near full and the ground was covered in several inches of snow. The landscape glowed pale monochrome like an x-ray print. Murray could pick out the flat surface of the frozen snow-covered river, the low hills that fringed the glacier, and the edge of the glacier itself, rising abruptly out of the hills like the prow of a ship. The snow drifted in dunes and banks up to six feet deep against the foot of the ice cliff. He strained his eyes to see the wooden stakes that marked the position of his survey network on the glacier surface, but could not pick them out. He tried to convince himself that they were hidden only by the twilight, but he knew that in fact they were hidden under the deepening snow. Who’s fault was it? It was bloody Bill Drummond’s fault. Murray reached into a box at the head of the tent and took out a thickly stuffed envelope. He drew from it one of many closely scribbled pages, took a pen from the floor beside his bag, and added to the bottom of the page.
 “Bed-time, Jilly, and I miss you. It is still snowing and I am not sure whether I will be able to get much more done if it doesn’t stop soon. I don’t know why I let Drummond talk me into coming out so early. I don’t really know why he was so keen, but he’s such a bugger you never know what he’s thinking. I should have listened to you. Sorry. I hope you will forgive me. Still, it is beautiful here. Bloody cold but not bad for April. See you soon. Love you. Murray.”
 He put the paper back into the envelope, returned the envelope to its box, and turned in for the night.

 Kate draped Bill Drummond’s still damp letter over the radiator in her room, placed the beer mat that she had brought with her from the bar on the bed-side table, and she too turned in for the night. Lying on her back in the dark she listened for the faint sounds of the campus, but all was quiet. A dog miles away. A car out on the main road. Somewhere she supposed Bill Drummond was letting himself into his house and doing whatever it was that he did when he was not being a head of department. Kate rolled on to her side and closed her eyes. “What are you like, Bill Drummond?” She started to let her mind work through the events of the following day. Preparing, rehearsing, as she always did, as she drifted off to sleep. “And what am I going to do about you?”


 “Good Morning. Is it Dr. Sullivan? Hello, I’m Mary. The Professor is ready for you, go right on in.” Drummond’s secretary opened the connecting door at the end of her office and gestured  Kate through. I’ll bring some breakfast through in a minute.”
 Drummond rose from his desk and stepped over to meet Kate; hand outstretched, and a smile on his face.
 “Hello, Kate. None the worse for wear after your two orange juices?”
 Kate grinned. “Good morning. Is Mary your secretary or your housekeeper? I didn’t know Professors got their breakfasts served at their desks!”
 “Mary is my bodyguard.” He grinned. “My one piece of advice when you get to be a Head of Department is to appoint a good secretary. It’s the most important appointment you will ever make.”
 “If the occasion ever arises I will remember that.”
 Drummond smiled raised one eyebrow. “You wait and see. Anyway, come on, we have work to do.” He showed Kate to a seat at a round conference table in the centre of the room. “You know where I stand. I want the VC to offer you this job, and I want you to accept it. I don’t know whether you have made up your mind one way or the other, and I don’t propose to ask you, but I am going to assume for now  that you want the job, and I am going to do everything I can to help you. What you need is to be prepared.”
 Kate smiled. “That is always my preferred plan, but you haven’t given me a great deal to go on. As far as we got last night was to decide that I wasn’t qualified for a senior lectureship in Earth and Planetary Sciences!”
 “That’s as far as the VC and the other members of the committee will have got, too. What you have to do is show them that they have been looking for the wrong qualities, because they haven’t appreciated what they need in order to turn this department around. I have been working on the VC for months to sell him my idea of a research framework that breaks out of the traditional research-group mould. It flies in the face of University policy, and he hasn’t been very receptive, but now that the department has not been able to agree on a single acceptable candidate for this post, he must be beginning to see that a radical solution is going to be needed. The trouble is, as I said last night, he might just throw the whole procedure out of the window, appoint no-one, and leave us understaffed until he solves all our problems with an axe.”
 “How do we convince him to do otherwise?”
 “By showing him that we, in other words you, understand the problem and can see a clear way to a solution. If the VC hears it from an outsider, instead of hearing it over and over again from me, he might be convinced to give it a go. “
 “Alright then: what is the problem? Middleton needs its departments to get high research ratings in the next rating exercise or the government cuts the budget. The Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences specifically needs to increase its rating or else the university might just close it down in favour of something more efficient. To increase the research rating we need the people in the department to win more external scientific sponsorship and to produce more publications in the most prestigious journals. At the moment they are working at less than full power because... because all the individuals and small teams are competing against each other rather than collaborating with each other. I am the solution to that problem because... well so far because Bill Drummond says so. I don’t suppose that’s a good enough reason, is it?”
 “Sadly no.”
 “How about: because my research field will encourage inter-group collaboration, and my expertise in chemical processes is of direct relevance both to several current research groups and to the proposed new  Terrestrial Processes group.”
 “That’s a start, but there’s more than that.”
 “You need more women on the staff to make the department a more friendly and co-operative place?”
 “That certainly is true, but I don’t think it will win  your case! Think, Kate, why did you apply for this job in the first place? You must have known you had no chance.”
 “You want the honest answer?”
 “I know the honest answer. You were just sabre-rattling at home. You want to move up in the world, Kate Mulligan. You haven’t committed yourself to some obscure research topic that consumes your whole being to the exclusion of common sense, you aren’t like most of the people in my department squabbling over which of them should be allowed to progress a little bit faster with their particular experiment or theory. If it came to it you would risk a complete change of research direction and hardly look back at where you had come from. You want to get on with things and not stand still. You won’t admit it to yourself but if you had your way you’d be running the whole show. You are like me.  You are like the VC, and when he sees that, he’ll give you a chance. That’s all you need. All you have to do is walk into that interview and say ‘hey - I’m just like you, leave it to me’ and they will just lay out the red carpet for you. I know how these people think, Kate, and deep down so do you. We don’t care if you are looking at glaciers on Mars or fossils in the Mendips, all we care about is that you want to make things work. That’s what this place needs. The people in the department are terrified of it, but the VC will know it’s right when you show him.”
 “But surely you could make these changes as Head of Department. You don’t need me.”
 “No. I could change the administrative structures, move people into different groups, and tell them to get on with it, but there’s no way I could actually make them do something they don’t want to. I need someone who can give them a reason to want to do it. Someone with something to offer them that they can’t get from the people they already work with. Not just a valuable expertise but a fresh face and a fresh attitude to go with it.”
 “So you expect me to walk into the interview and say ‘hi, here’s your problem and I’m the solution’? Won’t they think that’s a bit cheeky?”
 “Straightforward and bold, Kate. Sounds better than cheeky. But yes, if they think you are straightforward and bold and can offer something to inspire more than petty squabbling among your colleagues, then they will buy it.”
 “And otherwise?”
“Well it won’t have been a completely wasted visit. At least I have enjoyed it!”
 For the first time in years, Kate almost felt as if she might be blushing. She was spared her embarrassment by the distraction of Mary coming in with a buffet trolley.
 “Aha!” announced Drummond. “Breakfast!”
 As they worked their way through the assortment of bread, cheese, fruit and pastries that for Drummond seemed to constitute a normal breakfast, they worked also through the list of the department’s staff and their research interests. As they did so, Kate realised that she had already made one blunder in the interview procedure. It became clear from the things Drummond was saying that he was working on the assumption that Kate had already familiarised herself with the make up of the department. Mentally kicking herself, Kate knew that she had slipped up badly. Because the invitation to interview had taken took her so much my surprise, and because Drummond had not included any detailed information in his invitation, she had not done her usual thorough job of homework. She seemed to be getting away with it, and what Bill seemed to be offering by way of a reminder was for Kate a crash course. By the time they were done, and Bill was walking Kate around the corridors introducing her to the staff, Kate had a rough but serviceable mental map of who was who. She was also beginning to try to piece together some framework to justify her place in the department:  potential collaborations, complementary equipment needs, unifying and cost-saving measures that her presence would facilitate. All the while, as she was talking to Drummond and the others, and as she was planning her story for the interview panel, deep down inside she was still wondering why on earth she was bothering to prepare so hard for a job interview that she hadn’t really come to win. Could it be that Drummond was right, and she was lured the opportunity to play a big fish in a new pond, even if it was outside the line of interest she had been developing since she was a student? Was she being swept along by Drummond’s brisk enthusiasm, and his assumption that she was playing to win? She looked at Drummond as he was pointing out features on a wall-mounted plan of the building. His rough, tanned features, the piercing blue eyes, the shock of hair swept across his forehead. Was it Drummond himself who was sweeping her along?
 “Are you alright? Oh dear, you are beginning to glaze. I am afraid I am overloading you. Let’s take a turn outside. There is a lovely walk through the formal gardens. And then I will give you some time to relax before the interview. I will have to go and meet the VC and go through things with the panel before I introduce you. Mary will look after you. Come on.”
 For just a second he touched Kate’s arm as he showed her out of the room. It was accidental, and he didn’t seem to notice. As Kate walked out of the door ahead of him she was certain that she was blushing.

 Murray Theakestone threw back his head, spread out his arms, and allowed himself to fall backwards with a crunch into a drift of crisp, soft snow. 
 “Bloody Hell!”
 Overnight the sky had cleared, but not before dumping another six inches of snow onto Murray’s glacier. As the sky cleared before dawn the temperature plunged, and Murray awoke to find himself in what one of his former students used to call “starch-world”. Everything that when warm would be supple or soft was frozen into a brittle, solid, obstructive form. The flap of the tent was sealed like cardboard that folded open with a crack. His boots were frozen like iron into the shape they were left in  when he took them off his feet the night before, the laces angled stiffly outwards like straps of pressed wire. The tooth paste was frozen like a tube of well-set concrete. Murray’s breath froze tiny drops of moisture into beads of ice on the whiskers of his unshaven face. This was cold.
 Murray set off from the tent with his boots wedged like clogs onto his well wrapped feet. He knew that they would loosen up after a while and then he could ease them into a more normal position and tie the laces. It didn’t matter for now: he wasn’t doing anything more than climbing the thirty metres to the top of the moraine ridge behind the tent. From there he could see the whole of the research area, and it was there that, in a final gesture of submission, he lay on his back in the snow staring up into the pale blue sky. There was nothing more he could do while snow drifts masked the front of the glacier, and with the weather as it was it could be weeks before they cleared. It was always a gamble, coming out so early in the year, and he had lost. Or at least Bill Drummond had lost. Murray knew that Bill would not be pleased, and he smiled. At least there was an up side to this! On the other hand, Jilly would be furious too, because there was no doubt now that Murray would have to come out again later in the summer. Jilly had only reluctantly accepted Murray’s  coming to Greenland all alone at a potentially dangerous time of year because he assured her that it would both get Bill Murray off his back (hence improving his chances of getting the new senior lectureship) and also mean that he wouldn’t have to be away later in the year when Jilly could take her vacation. Now he was going to have both Drummond and Jilly disappointed in him. Brilliant. The only good thing would be that he would definitely be home in time to prepare for the Senior Lectureship interviews. Drummond said the interviews wouldn’t be held until May, and Murray knew he only had a fifty-fifty chance of being considered, but it wouldn’t hurt to be prepared. That was normally his big weakness.
 Murray sat up and looked around. To the east, his glacier lumbered up out of the snow drifts and stretched off as an ever-rising slope to the horizon. The  ice sheet stretched for five hundred miles before hitting ice-free land on the east coast. At this time of year it was five hundred miles of freshly fallen snow, without a single footprint. To the north, west, and south, as Murray slowly turned his gaze through three hundred and sixty degrees, a freshly whitewashed landscape of low rocky hills glistened in the low sun. At intervals between the hills patches of flat snow marked the presence of frozen lakes. In the summer it would be a richly coloured landscape  teeming with life and sound. Today it was a pale washed soundless monochrome. It was like an undercoat of the world, on God’s day off before he comes back to add the final coat. The higher mountains visible in the distance towards the coast were nearly eighty miles away, and Murray was looking out over an area of land bigger than some countries. In all that space, he knew that there was just one small patch of human activity, the airport settlement at Kangerlussuaq. His way home.
 Murray sat alone, in the silence, regarding the huge frozen landscape in front of him. Terrible though it was, and as dearly as he missed the comforts and company of home,  he knew that as soon as he left this place he would be longing to come back. In his diary, he wrote: “This is a special place. These are the bones of the Earth. The sky is like a solid medium, three dimensional, coming all the way down to the ground. Walking through this landscape is like walking through the bottom of the sky, like a creature of the sea-floor moving through the bottom of the sea. There is no equivalent to this at home. At home we resume our normal human dimensions, and the sky resumes its position above us. At home everything is small. Even me.”

Dear Dr. Mulligan,
I am pleased to confirm that your application for the post of Senior Lecturer in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences has been successful, and you are hereby offered the position from May 1st subject to the conditions set out in the accompanying contract. Please sign two copies of the contract and return them to me at your earliest convenience.
Signed on behalf of the Director of Personnel, Middleton University.

Dear Kate,
Well done!

Dear Dr. Theakestone,
I am sorry to have to inform you that your application for promotion to the post of Senior Lecturer in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences has been unsuccessful on this occasion. The committee were very impressed with your papers, and deeply regret that the number of promotions offered in this round has been limited by financial constraints.
Signed on behalf of the Director of Personnel, Middleton University.

Dear Murray,
Bad luck!

 Murray is in his office in the department, looking through the mail and e-mail that has arrived during his absence in Greenland. It is dark outside, and there is a light rain falling into the puddles on the flat roof outside Murray’s window. From somewhere in the distance comes the muffled sound of music. Some of the students are back from the vacation, and Middleton is beginning to adopt its term-time personality. It is late in the evening, and Murray, alone in the building, is still jet-lagged, is miserable from fighting with Jilly over his premature and fruitless return from the field, and is very, very angry with Bill Drummond.
 Kate is in her bed, warm, relaxed, and smelling slightly of lavender. There is a more than adequate single malt on the bedside table, and a copy of the Annual Report of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences on her lap. This is her last night in her old apartment before she moves to Middleton, and she is too excited to sleep. Kate, like Murray, is thinking about Bill Drummond, but the emotion that would best describe her feelings, if she were to admit to them, would not be anger.


 Kate arrived at Middleton to take up her post on the Wednesday of the week preceding the start of the summer term. Her contract did not officially start until the first Monday of term, but Kate wanted to get everything ready in advance. She wanted to be prepared. All teaching in the department had finished before the vacation, and the students had two or three weeks of free revision time before their exams, so although there was some buzz of new-term activity in the department, there was none of the alarm or urgency that characterised the start of the autumn or spring terms when new modules were about to burst into action. For most members of the department the first half of May was a period of relative calm before the storm of examinations and assessments that would break towards the end of the month, and Kate’s arrival had therefore been the most pressing topic of conversation in the staff common room for several days, as those members of academic staff who had been away from Middleton during the vacation returned to the news that the new Senior Lectureship had been filled by some chemist that none of them had ever heard of.
 Opinion on the matter was divided between two camps. On the one hand, and largely confined to the corner of the room where a low round table seating about half a dozen people was squeezed into the bay of the window that looked out over the Registry lawn, were those who thought that the appointment was a well intentioned but hopeless attempt to inject life into the ailing Planetary Materials and Geophysics research group. This view was confined primarily to the members of the Astrophysics group, who’s opinions on anything other than astrophysics were rarely held in high regard by the remainder of the department. The huge majority of those who contributed to the discussion were of the contrary opinion that the appointment was just another sad but inevitable step towards Bill Drummond’s dream of a School of Environmental Sciences.
 Murray Theakestone was not in the habit of involving himself in common-room chat. There were two or three people in the department whose opinion he valued, and with whom he would share his own thoughts, but for the most part he had no doubt that the majority of his colleagues, expert though they may be in their fields, were simply not worth talking to. He held this to be true most especially of several of the fellow members of his own research group, Planetary Materials and Geophysics. If he had been aware of the Astrophysicists’ opinion that his group was beyond hope, he would have certainly agreed with them. It was  an opinion that he had himself had formed on the day that it was announced that the research groups were to be created as a formal administrative structure. As far as he was concerned he would prefer to work alone in the department in a research group of one. Those colleagues with whom he did choose to work were scattered in institutions around the world, and when their business could not be conducted by e-mail they would arrange to meet either in the field or at the next international conference that they were all attending. The pretence that one could usefully collaborate with whoever happened to be thrust at you by departmental coincidences or politics was not one that Murray was willing to support, and he showed his  antipathy by disassociating himself from the group at every practical level. 
Perhaps by coincidence, or perhaps by virtue of the nature of the research fields that came within the remit of the group, Murray’s Planetary Materials and Geophysics co-workers were not of an entirely dissimilar disposition, and of all the groups in the department theirs was the only one that had never produced a single collaborative project. Their only joint venture, and one which was more successful than many of the other research groups’ collaborations, was a regular weekly sojourn to the Graduate Common Room Bar. Even in this, however, the group revealed its true colours. Of the eight members of staff officially attached to the group, only three attended any but the inaugural meeting. Those three, Murray, Bob Whittaker, and Earl Presley, constituted what they jokingly called the Memphis Mafia, based on Presley’s inevitable and well-fitting nick-name and on the way that both Presley and Whittaker habitually wore dark glasses on even the dullest of Middleton’s characteristically dull days. On their evenings at the bar, Murray too would don the shades to complete the trio.
 Ironically, although Planetary Materials and Geophysics was a research group in nothing but name, the Memphis Mafia were the only people in the University, apart from Jilly, with whom Murray ever socialised. Perhaps it was their shared determination to preserve their individualism that drew them together. According to Presley it was the spirit of The King that united them. Murray himself maintained that it was simply that no one else, unsurprisingly, would ever agree to drink with them. 

 Murray was more or less the very last person in the department to meet the new senior lecturer. On the afternoon of her arrival, Kate was given what Bill called the Grand Tour, when the Head of Department knocked on the door of each staff office in turn and introduced the newcomer to its occupant. Absentees were mopped up  at afternoon tea, when most members of the department emerged from the seclusion of their various labours to see whether the Head had any pressing announcements, which on this occasion, he did. Murray was not in his office when Bill brought Kate past on her tour, and rarely attended afternoon tea. Drummond was not disappointed at being able to avoid what he predicted could be an awkward introduction. 
Kate’s gradual acquaintance with Murray was thus by way of a series of passing comments from other members of staff. Each of these was in itself unrevealing, but as the afternoon progressed, Kate’s curiosity, and concern, was gradually aroused. Most puzzling to her was the fact that so many people were taking the trouble to ask whether she had yet met Theakestone, as if that were a crucial milestone in her induction to the department, and one upon which they would gauge their own reaction to the new arrival. By the end of the day, when the only people that Kate had not met apart from Murray were those that were accountably absent by reason of sabbatical leave, indisposition, academic commitments, or, in the case of Max Willard, irredeemable absenteeism, her main outstanding inclination was to encounter this enigmatic character. Thus it was, that late in the evening, when Kate, leaving the building to go home for the night, saw light shining through the glass panel in Theakestone’s office door, she ventured to complete her day’s intended task of introducing herself to all of her new colleagues.
 “Yeah! Come in!”
 Murray rarely disturbed himself sufficiently to open the door to any callers. Visitors were always greeted from behind the frosted glass panel either by silence, when Murray was not open to interruption, or by a shout. If Murray had guessed that his caller was the new senior lecturer he would probably have remained silent. He knew her type without having to meet her, and was not inclined to involve himself too closely with her. Drummond was bound to have picked out some ambitious dim-wit, businesslike and probably very efficient at keeping her filofax in good order, but gullible, and no doubt already fallen for some line from Drummond about the future good of the department. If she was Drummond’s type she would be dark and tidy with a tight little skirt and a tightly packed little brief-case  with her initials on it. She had stumbled into academia by carelessness, just drifting on through school into university and from undergraduate to postgraduate work just because no one told her she could do anything different. She should really have been an estate agent, or a publisher, and one day she would become a university administrator making life one bit worse for the real academics. The administration office was full of women like her, gnawing their way up the ladder, wishing they had been good enough to get into a real business career.
 Louder: “Come in!”
 Kate stuck her chin out, straightened her little brown skirt, and opened the door. 
 Murray was somewhere between thirty and forty, tall and tousled, with a stern, lopsided face that looked as if it could almost have been handsome but had been left out for too long in a cold wind. Deep, dark eyes peered out from a face weather-beaten somewhat beyond its years. He had been raised in the dour and canny landscapes of north east Scotland. Buchan, Aberdeenshire, Cairngorm. As an undergraduate his interest had focused mainly on climbing, a little poetry, and barely enough Geography and History to earn a degree. He learned from a Presbyterian minister in Inverurie to juggle any four small objects in  a unique style,  and had inherited from the same source a passion for tales of desert exploration. His considerable gift for lurid camp-fire story-telling translated with some impact to the less robust surroundings of academic institutions, and when he moved south to a postgraduate position at Oxford, he was deemed by his earliest acquaintances at that English seat of learning to be a very rare bird. 
 Murray was standing behind his desk, looking out through the bay window into the twilight across the Registry Lawn. Around the walls of the office bookshelves and cupboards floundered knee-deep in drifts of clutter. Every conceivable storage space bulged or sagged with books, papers, boxes, bottles, and all manner of what to Kate seemed like alien hardware. Murray was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, and as he turned from his position gazing out of the window to see who was coming to disturb him, the logo printed on the shirt was the first thing to catch Kate’s eye. “Sod the Glaciers. Support Global Warming.”
“Dr. Theakestone?”
“That’s me.”
Murray’s voice was soft with the Doric lilt peculiar to his corner of Scotland, and his face opened out into a crooked grin of welcome as he spoke.
“I’m Murray Theakestone.”
 “Hi. I’m sorry to disturb you so late, but I really wanted to meet you. I’m Kate Sullivan. I just started here today. Hey, I really like the shirt.”
Murray stepped out from behind his desk and moved towards Kate, but stopped half way across the room as though thinking better of it. He never felt very good at meeting people he had already heard of. Before he ever met them he knew exactly what he thought of them and exactly what he wanted to say to them, but when he actually came face to face everything became a bit more complicated. He was better with strangers, because he wasn’t ready for them.
The problem was especially pronounced when, as now, the person he was meeting was unexpectedly absolutely completely beautifully gorgeous.


 Have you ever noticed that in advertisements for clocks or watches the clock face always stands at ten to two or ten past ten? It is supposed to have a psychologically beneficial effect on the viewer, almost as if the clock is smiling. No one would buy a clock that said twenty to four. Everybody prefers to see a happy clock. The design on the publicity material for Middleton University includes a drawing of the library clock tower. The clock in the picture stands at quarter past ten, like a wry grin. 

 “I gather your introduction to Dr. Theakestone didn’t go to well?”
 Kate was arriving in the department early in the afternoon of her second day at Middleton. She had spent most of the morning sorting out her new flat in a staff residence block on campus. She planned to spend the rest of the day beginning to organise her office. As Kate headed across the entrance foyer towards the main stairway that led up to the staff offices, Bob Whittaker emerged from behind the bust  of Isaac Newton in what was clearly and unashamedly a pre-meditated ambush.
 “I’m Bob, we met briefly yesterday but didn’t really get to say hello. He shoved out a pudgy hand. “Hello.”
 “Hi. News travels, then.”
 “I met Murray for a drink. You made a big impression.”
 “I bet.”
 Bob kept hold of Kate’s hand for just a fraction longer than she would really have liked as they moved together towards the stairs. As he released her he raised his hand to remove the little round black-rimmed and slightly shaded spectacles from his face and let them dangle by a cord around his neck. On the basis of what was admittedly a brief  and wholly unsuccessful relationship with Murray, Kate was surprised that he would be drinking buddies with someone like Bob. Bob was a similar age to Murray, but as much as Murray was the lean, mean scruffy type, Bob was the very picture of a jovial, corpulent dandy. He wore a dark jacket with a pinstripe shirt and a spotted bow tie, and kept his shock of curly black hair well greased as if to match the permanently moist texture of his over-exerted complexion. He moved with the exaggerated haste of a little man who had to run to keep up, and puffed around the department like a busy little steam train.
 “Go on then,” said Kate, “tell me what he said.”
 “Oh no, not so fast. You tell me your version first!”
 “My version. You sound like a detective!”
 “Oh yes, yes, trying to piece it all together, that’s me. This is the most exciting business to hit us in, oooh, weeks at least. Come on, what happened?”
 “Well I just went in to say hello, to see who he was, to let him know I was going to be working with him...”
 “Ooo! Big big mistake. Right there. Telling him you were going to work with him. That’s where you lost him. He hates that.”
 “Well he seemed okay at that point, although he wasn’t saying a lot. I just tried to keep the conversation going for a minute so it didn’t get awkward, but he just seemed to switch me off. I had worked out in advance how to start the conversation, but...”
 “How? How did you start the conversation? What did you say?”
 “Well, I started by saying that Professor Drummond had shown me...”
 “Using Drummond to start a conversation with Murray. Ouch!”
 “Why? What’s wrong with that? Don’t they get on?”
 “Never mind, never mind, what next? What did Murray say?”
 “He said I must have heard all about the department’s plans for the future, I said that Bill had given me a pretty clear picture, Murray said I must be a bit of a high-flyer to get a senior lectureship so young, and I just said that if Professor Drummond and the rest of the committee were confident in me then I would do my best to live up to their expectations, and, oh, I might have said again that I was looking forward to getting together with him on his environmental work..”
 Bob had closed his eyes and was running his hands through his hair. 
 “Environmental work? Oh that’s a good one too. Oh dear, oh dear! So, really you were just being friendly and trying to open up a dialogue with your new colleague?”
 “Well yes, I just wanted to say hi.”
 “And he was, what? Unreceptive?”
 “I suppose so.
 “Well, may be a little. He seemed very keen to get rid of me.”
 “And my guess is that you are a bit surprised by all of that, yes?
 “Well, yes.  I don’t know what I did wrong.”
 “Look. Kate, there’s no reason that you should have known this, but you’ve been dropped into a bit of a can of worms. The reason Murray was a bit miffed is that he was stitched up so that you could get this job. Almost everybody in the department thought that Murray should be promoted to SL, but Drummond convinced the VC to go outside. That’s not so bad if you believe in Drummond’s plan for the department, but what’s bad is that he tricked Murray into missing the interviews. Sent him off on some wild snow-chase to Greenland to get him out of the way, and sneaked you into the post before Murray got back. You’re the bad guy, and you just called on Murray to rub it in. Nice start. Bad luck! You should have come to see me first. I’m your man if you want to know what’s what! Murray’s environmental work. Ha! That’s a real classic. He didn’t tell me that one. Ha!”
 “Oh my God! I had no idea that Murray had been up for the job. Bill never said there was an internal candidate.”
 “Well there wasn’t. Murray never replied to his invitation to interview. He didn’t even know there was an interview till he came back from Greenland. The invitation and the rejection must have been waiting in the same pile of mail when he got back. That Bill’s an operator, and the VC’s just as bad.”
Kate had never met the VC. He was supposed to have been on her interview panel, but had been unable to attend and had been replaced by his deputy for that day, so she didn’t really know what he was like. She knew Bill Drummond, though, and she didn’t believe that what Bob was saying about Bill was true. Nevertheless, she could well believe that Bob and Murray thought it was true, and that she must have come over really badly the night before.
 “What must he have thought. Oh my God! I just wanted to say hi. He must think I’m a bitch. He must hate me. I must have seemed really rude. No wonder he wanted to get rid of me. I was asking about his trip to Greenland and he suddenly just said he’d walk me to the door.”
 Oh that’s okay, that’s just his way of saying he was due to meet me and Elvis at the bar. He wasn’t trying to get rid of you. You should have come along. It would have been interesting.”
 “So he doesn’t hate me? Is that what he said?”
 “Oh yes, he does hate you. You really are the demon bitch from hell like everybody said you would be. Those weren’t his exact words, but it was something like that. I remember because it really made Jilly laugh. She hates you too, by the way. I like you. I don’t think you’re as bad as people make out. Is this your office? Nice. Used to be Murray’s when I first arrived here. Ironic eh? So, er, what are you going to do?”
 “Well it’s really not my fault, and it’s a bit mean of him to be calling me names behind my back after one conversation.”
 “No, I mean now, what are you going to do now? Are you going to ask me in for a cup of coffee, or what?”
 “Now remind me, I think you’re the cheeky one that everybody said I had to watch out for!”
 Bob chuckled and bundled him self ahead of Kate into the half unpacked office, rolling his head and his eyes apparently in different directions at the same time to take in as much as possible in one go. “Don’t worry, Kate, I’m one of the good guys.” He delved into the inside pocket of his jacket and like a magician with a rabbit pulled out a packet that seemed far too big ever to have fitted unnoticed into the jacket. “Look, I even brought biscuits! Which box is the kettle in?”

 Jilly and Murray were at Jilly’s house making sandwiches. Jilly was home for lunch. Murray had been hanging around with Jilly’s cat for the morning, watching TV and consuming, with the cat, prodigious quantities of custard. He had stayed over when they came back from the bar the previous night. In fact, he stayed over most nights, and while Jilly went to work he spent most mornings making custard to share with the cat. The cat thought Murray was God, and loved him mindlessly. Murray thought the cat was a big fat slob that ate too much custard. In the afternoons, when Jilly went back to work, Murray wandered into the department to check his mail and to decide whether he was in the mood to do work. When the mood was upon him he would work late into the night, but otherwise he would pack up in the middle of the afternoon and go back to his own place. He seemed to spend most of his time not working, but still seemed to get a lot done. He was one of the most prolific producers of published output in the department, although it was a mystery to almost everyone how he managed to achieve it with so little apparent effort or urgency. This vacation routine was interrupted only by research trips into the field and by the onset of term time and a return to teaching morning classes.
 “So are you going to have to work with this terrible woman?”
 “Uh huh.”
 “But she sounds impossible.”
 “So what are you going to do?”
 “I don’t know. We’ll have to see what happens.”
 Jilly was well accustomed to Murray being hard work in a conversation, so his reticence on the matter of the demon bitch from hell was no surprise. Murray’s habit when faced with a new issue or a difficult problem was always to stow it away into a sort of mental deep-storage at the back of his mind, where he would let it fester and ferment under the slow but steady onslaught of subconscious thought, until it would gradually distil into a clear opinion. While that was happening he would not readily discuss it, or even consciously think about it. It was a deliberate method, and one that he trusted. Jilly understood that Murray worked his problems in this way, and although it was completely alien to her direct, head-to-head approach, she would usually leave him in peace apart from the occasional irritable prod. From Murray’s point of view, a huge benefit of his approach was that when he simply chose not to talk about something that was preying on his mind, people didn’t know that there was anything amiss. Since he had got back from Greenland, though, Murray thought that Jilly had not been letting things go. She seemed to be right on his case about something all the time.
 “Well you are going to have to do something. She’ll be a menace.”
 “She will that. Here’s your sandwiches. Cat! here’s some custard!”

 Just after four o’clock, Bill Drummond put his head round Kate’s open door. 
 “Knock knock!”
 “Oh, hi!”
 Kate swept her hair away from her face and picked her way through the boxes and piles of books that were strewn across the floor. Bill smiled his quizzical smile.
 “Settling in? I just thought I’d check that everything was going alright. Didn’t see you in coffee and I wanted to fix a time to have a chat about things.”
 “Oh,  I had coffee with Bob Whittaker. Or rather he had coffee with me. He seems really friendly. Look,” Kate held up the empty wrapper from Bob’s magical biscuits, “he even gave me an office warming present.”
 Drummond laughed.  “Damn, he beat me to it! I can see you are still in the thick of it, so why don’t we say tomorrow afternoon, about two o’clock. I have some very important business to discuss with you... the date of your welcome party for a start!”
 Outside in the corridor, Mary the bodyguard secretary called Drummond’s name. With a roll of the eyes heavenward as if to say his work was never done, and with a grin that said he really didn’t mind, he was gone.
Looking at Bill, and swept along by his good humoured charm, Kate struggled to match the man in front of her with the picture of duplicity painted by Bob Whittaker. She knew well enough that departmental politics could get rough, and when she had come up for the interview Bill had seemed determined almost to the point of obsession to do what was he thought was best for the department, but it was a long way from determination to the sort of treachery that Bob was describing. She also knew how easy it was for the staff in a department to get worked up about the behaviour of a Department Head, or of the University Administration, when they could not clearly see all the issues that were at stake. No doubt Bob and Murray were stung by the way things had turned out with the Senior Lectureship, but they were too deeply involved to be objective. Like Bill had said, being objective is the job of the Head of Department, and that is why it is so hard for a Head of Department to be popular. He was in a really difficult position, and he seemed to be handling it really well. Kate felt as if in their earlier conversations about the department Bill had shared with her a little bit of his confidential, Head of Department, view of the future. If Bob, or Murray, or any of the others didn’t know about what was at stake, then no wonder they were easy to upset. But she knew the task that Bill faced in getting the department back on track, and she could see that he was going about it in the best way there was. And if Bill trusted her enough to share with her his vision of the future, and to take her on board as a part of that future, then the least she owed him was her support. If Bill Drummond sometimes had to be Prof. W.F.Drummond to get the job done, then she would support him, too.

Chapter 6

You guessed it: there is no chapter 6 yet.

If you want to know how the story turns out, ask me and I can try and find out!