It was whilst driving that Professor Giles Latham made the momentous decision. This rash and outlandish decision had been brewing for some time now. In the airing cupboard, far too close to the immersion heater it sat bubbling away. The proportions of the ingredients thrown into the ponderously burgeoning container were perilously incorrect and so an explosion was inevitable. It was anyone’s guess as to when the explosion would take place, but the magnitude would be attention seeking, that was for sure. Also for sure was the mess it would make. A mess that would forever leave an interesting stain.
Professor Latham, or Prof G as he was sometimes referred to by some of his students, had begun to notice a deterioration of his state and at no time was it more abundantly clear than when he was behind the wheel of his jalopy.
“What the heck are you doing, you… you banana!” he cried as a car stopped in the middle of the road for no permissible reason other than to give way to a ponderous lorry that had been giving way on a side road.
Suddenly the rules and conventions of the road had been subverted and all hell broke loose. Latham looked in his rear view mirror at the empty road behind him and wondered at the stupidity of a driver that would stop on a perfectly clear road when a matter of two seconds later, the lorry could have pulled clear and made its way ahead anyway.
Now he was going to be late.
“You absolute imbecile!” he shouted at the back of the car as the lorry plodded along creating a barely moving road block, “why I’ve got a good mind to shake my fist in your general direction!”
He was watching the mirrors of the car in front to see if he had been caught in the act of raging, but the driver ahead was oblivious to his presence and a great deal else besides.
“If I were a betting man, I’d say you were about to…” his eyes went wide in disbelief as his prophesy prematurely crystalised in the world. The ingrate hadn’t even had the decency to await the finalisation of his prophecy before nonchalantly turning off the road and immediately parking up.
“I’ve got another hour to drive you bumbling buffoon,” he should at the car as he sailed gracefully and slowly past it.
He sighed in distraught resignation as he saw the signwriting on the back of the lorry. This lorry was going to be on the road ahead for the best part of his journey. Unless of course he could overtake it, but that was easier said than done.
Latham chose to travel these roads as they were quieter and more picturesque. These country roads were good for the soul, or rather they had been until his soul had become troubled. Now he was looking at the blank posterior of an obese vehicle that wheezed when it thought about the heady speed of 30mph. Half the speed limit, and double the time his journey should take. In the villages, the lorry proved oversized and had to stop frequently for oncoming vehicles and even a bicyclist at one point.
Several times, as a suitably straight road came into view, Latham would edge out in order to see whether the coast was clear, and not once was it. He drove for mile after mile around bends with solid white lines with not a car in sight, but when there was a spot that he could theoretically pass this lumbering dinosaur of a vehicle, a caravan of nomadic cars sprung out of nowhere and barred his way.
“No!” he cried for the third time, “curses, you soap-dodging hoi poloi!”
Directly after that uncharacteristic outburst he found himself parked beside a farm gate. He had no notion of how he had gotten there. The transition of motion to rest was lost to him, as was the bout of uncontrollable sobbing that he only became conscious of as it subsided and left him all at sea.
He sat there. Incredulous. His fingers were as pale as could be as he gripped the steering wheel as though he were throttling the very life out of it. His entire body was constricted. Electricity thrumming through him and switching every one of his muscles entirely on.
“I really can’t do this anymore,” he hissed through gritted teeth.
And that was that. The decision was finally made. There was no going back.
So, Latham turned the car around and went back. To his grace and favour apartment at the university. The place was barely bigger than a coffin and he had expected to die there, carried out in a home from home to even cheaper and pokier accommodation. But no more would that be the case. Not if he could help it.
He loaded his car with his possessions. This process took him a shockingly short space of time and when he threw the last smatterings of his belongings into the modest boot of his even more modest car he paused in the closing of the boot to reflect for a moment. This reflection of his threatened to undo him and the prospect of more sobbing galvanised him into action. He slammed the boot and tried his best not to dwell on the lie that accompanied his frugal existence.
And that lie was that he had done all of this on purpose. That he had wanted it to be this way. He’d even revelled in the stoicism of his existence. Latham had eschewed possessions because the stuff you thought you owned actually owned you.
That was a lie and one of many lies. The sentiment rang hollow when Latham saw how small and pathetic the sum total of his efforts seemed as they lay out of context in his boot.
As he drove away from the university for what might be the very last time, he glance only briefly in the rear view mirror. He had thought that parting would be more difficult than this and in conceding to the view in the mirror he would have second thoughts, but his gaze did not even linger.
And so another lie came crashing down.
He’d always told himself it was about the students and their futures, and maybe it was that way once upon a time, but not anymore. The current batch of students and many, many intakes prior to this lot, could not give a fig. Many of them didn’t even know what a fig was and neither did they care. It wasn’t just that there was a lack of motivation combined with a lack of respect, it was more that there was a growing belligerence. This lot didn’t need him and they were intent upon making that abundantly clear. They had lost a vital connection with the world around them and they no longer valued people as a result.
Maybe the value they placed on people resided elsewhere. But when it came to knowledge and learning, people were now redundant. Why bother listening to a crusty old bloke from a defunct generation when there was Boogle, and there was YouTunnel, and there was Bitter that was now just the letter B, and there was PikPok, and a whole host of other online platforms such as FacePlant, that was now called Beta (mispronounced Better)?
At the press of a button, people were swamped with content. There was so much content that they could pick and choose. And how did they pick and choose? They did it on a whim. There was no rigour to it. They seemed mostly to pick what was most visually appealing. The world was being shaped by uneducated egotists gluttonously indulging in a pic and mix of shiny and loud content.
Latham’s despair at this living hell had grown on him like inconspicuous mould. But then, he was not alone in this creeping nightmare. Everyone should have seen it coming, but they chose not to. Far too many distractions for that.
It was the distraction of driving that had woken Latham up sufficiently to see how far gone it all was. Or maybe he was too far gone. It amounted to the same thing in the end. He had sat in his car and allowed the ignoramus in the car in front to get under his skin. Even ten miles later he could not let it go. That was when he’d remembered a colleague whispering to him.
“The average person is really quite stupid.”
Latham had nodded and smiled a wry smile. These little jokes were common in the ivory towers of academia. He knew they were naughty, but they were also a part of the rich fabric of the place, so he wasn’t about to be a po-faced killjoy. He hadn’t expected a punchline.
“So imagine how thick half the population really are!”
He’d laughed a polite laugh, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the implications of this, and his part in this parlous state of affairs. As far as he could see, things were going to hell in a handcart. His students came to him in dire need of an education and they were rejecting him in totality, but somehow they were still getting their degrees.
This had been happening for quite some while now and it shamed him that he had never spoken up. He’d not even had a hushed conversation with a trusted colleague about what was going on. Then it dawned on him. The other change to have taken place in the world was the growing cost of gaining an education. Degrees were bought and paid for these days. It was all about money. Universities were big business and it would not do to be the little boy pointing a finger and speaking out.
But the emperor hasn’t learnt a thing!
Often there is a tipping point, a point of no return. For so long, Latham had ignored this and soldiered on regardless. He kept going in the vain hope that he would regain his mojo and with that renewed vim and vigour he and his lectures would shine once again. The problem with ploughing a furrow such as that was that it jaded and then obscured the past and now he wasn’t so sure that he and his subject matter had ever shone.
Things had got so bad that he’d stopped looking around him, stopped caring and quite frankly, he’d become thoroughly shabby. A threadbare teddy bear who had seen better times and would never be loved again, unless it was by a mouthy dog.
This time though, as he drove, there was a sense of purpose. Things were at last going to be different. He had made arrangements to that effect. The road ahead was clear and no one stood in his way. Fate cleared the way and he arrived at his intended destination in no time at all, which was to say two hours and twenty three minutes.
The driveway to the hotel was long and obscured by trees. It was on this stretch that Latham’s midsection tightened in a physical questioning of the merit of this decision of his. He shrugged and ignored the question. He was committed now. He had paid his money and he was going to take his chances. There was no going back. Not now.
He was all fingers and thumbs as he parked his car and eventually he abandoned it with a rear wheel confusedly standing proud upon the kerb. He almost ran from the car in embarrassment and in his haste he found himself at reception before he could take in his surroundings and compose himself.
“Can I help you?” asked the head peering out over the counter. It was a pretty head, in a painted sort of way. Pretty and somewhat confused by the looks of it.
“Yes,” said Latham, “I’m here for the course.”
“What?!” said the Jill-in-a-box, “Really?!”
Her voice was shrill. An alarm that drew attention from all those around Latham. He glanced furtively around and then confirmed his attendance on the course taking place at this venue, “yes,” he said, “really.”
His furtive reconnoitre had gleaned valuable intelligence, the main thrust of which was that Latham was surrounded by people who looked like the head before him, only they had bodies. And for some strange reason, they all seemed to be wearing white attire.
For the first time in a very long time, Latham felt self-conscious. And old.
“Wow!” said the head, “name, please.”
“Latham,” said Latham.
Against all expectation, a painted eyebrow rose up the painted forehead, “oh,” she said, “I thought you’d be…”
“Be what?” asked Latham, curious as to the expectations of the head. Even more curious as he doubted she was often this open and not to put a finer point on it, unprofessional.
“Different, I suppose,” she said in a strangely flat and dull tone that conveyed disappointment incredibly effectively and dragged Latham’s mood down with it.
She handed him a white and anonymous card and then a cardboard sleeve upon which she’d written a number, “you’ve got room 301. It’s a suite. One of our best.” She looked doubtful, as though he really shouldn’t have a room like that. Not today. Not like this.
Despite the oddness of the encounter and the knock he’d taken to his mood, Latham smiled and said thank you. Half way to his suite, he found a spring in his step and he was baffled as to how it had gotten there. He didn’t begrudge it it’s place in his step though. In fact, he whistled to it in encouragement.
Against his expectations, the white card opened room 301 on the first time of swiping. He bowled in and the lights came on automatically. The room was huge even before he made any comparison with his previous lodgings. And upon his king sized bed were several packages and parcels. Items he’d ordered so that they would be in the room when he arrived.
He looked at his watch. He had four hours. Four hours to get ready. That was time enough. He opened his packages and ensured everything was there. Then he went back downstairs to avail himself of some of the facilities of the hotel, of which there were many.
Two hours later, he returned to his room and took a shower, marvelling at his reflection in the heated mirror that was encircled by the steam in the bathroom. He smiled and wondered which saying was most apt right now. When in Rome popped into his head, but that did not sit right with him. He shrugged, it would come to him in time. Most things did. It was a case of dogged determination sprinkled with the dust of patience.
With half an hour to kill he returned to the reception desk and was pleased to see the very same head peering out at him, only this time she smiled a radiant smile and greeted him effusively.
He beamed back at her, “can you arrange for a bottle of champagne to be in my room in three-hour’s time, please?”
Latham supressed a smile at the use of sir, this had not been in use during their first interaction.
“What room are you staying in?” she asked this in a way that almost conveyed a personal interest in the room in question.
Latham smiled a knowing smile and then he told her. He was rewarded with the features on the head’s face dropping and colliding and fiercely attempting to reassemble themselves, but failing to do so in a satisfactory manner.
He turned on his heel and only as he made his way to the bar for a stiffener did he grin. This rash endeavour of his was turning out to have the potential for entertainment and fun. Oh how he’d missed those things in his life! It felt as though he’d not had fun like this since he’d been at boarding school, and since then he’d forgotten himself and also forgotten how to live!
“That single malt please,” he said nodding at an interesting backlit bottle on a podium.
The bar tender nodded and poured him a generous measure without fiddling about with any measuring devices.
Latham flashed his card so the drink was charged to his room.
A nervous young man sidled up to him at the bar and Latham knew what he was going to say before he opened his mouth, “are you here for the course?”
Latham nodded without looking at him, “you could say that, yes.”
“I hear it’s life-changing,” said the man, grinning at Latham’s ear.
“It certainly is,” Latham said before taking a swig of the aged whisky. It was warm and silky smooth and spoke of things to come.
The nervous man nodded and then loped off. Twitchy. Excited. Eager to start in on the course. Latham knew how he felt. The trick wasn’t to show it though. The trick was to show something utterly different. He finished his whisky and made his way to an anonymous side door.
On the other side of that door was another world, but in some ways a familiar one. Latham was after all an educator.
Picking up a headset, he stepped out into a pool of light and saw a sea of expectant faces. He remembered himself and took a moment to take it all in. These people were here to listen and they were here to listen to him.
“Gentleman, welcome on board. Today is the first day in the next chapter of your lives! Today, you will all learn how to be a success in the world of Only Admirers. You will monetise yourselves and you will have fun!”
As the crowd whooped, cheered and hell-yeahed, Latham remembered the saying that had eluded him earlier.
If you can’t beat em…