Look Away Now

Given your exceedingly sensitive disposition, dear Reader, I strongly advise you to avert your eyes from the remaining sentences in this post.

No, really: I mean it.

Just as Asafetida reached out her hand to receive her bouquet of strangler vines and marigolds, there was a sudden gust of wind.

It spun the helicopter around unexpectedly in my direction, dear Reader. Its rotor blades shimmered in the sun.

I shut my eyes.

When I opened them, dear Reader, there was a pile of matchsticks and shredded fleur-de-lovage silk where once there had been a sedan chair; and Rose Madder, lying on the ground with her hands over her head.

Of Asafetida and Vermilion there was no sign.

The helicopter wheeled away, and I caught a glimpse of the pilot, who seemed to glare at me, dear Reader, as if I were personally to blame for Taizhou’s cruel east wind.

There was a pause, while the assembled company regarded the scene of devastation before them. Darren looked pale. Mise peered over the edge of the helipad at her fascinator, caught on the Garden of Remembering horsehead crenellations far below. Lu-Seal sighed, and produced her mop.

‘Come, Miss Scarlet’, I said to Rose Madder. ‘I have need of a PA with advanced self-defence skills. I trust your shorthand is up to speed. I must telegraph Ser Basil immediately.’


Apocalypse ni hao

We are on the Humanities Beacon helipad, dear Reader, and the chopper blades are whirring high above us.

Salty, Freya, Janice, Professor Mise, May-ling (student rep) and Darren stand in a line behind me wearing their Sunday best. As instructed, Darren is clutching a bouquet and a bottle of Henri Jayer Richebourg Grand Cru, Cote de Nuits (1985).

Professor Mise holds her fascinator down with one hand over her unruly hair, and bellows, ‘Is the wine for Ser Basil, dear Ada?’

‘No need to shout, my dear’, I reply, whisking the bottle from Darren’s pale hand, on which I notice there is a long scratch. ‘The flowers will do just fine’.

We watch as the small dark speck in the sky gets larger and larger. The air rises around us. We are blown back a little.

Ser Basil’s private helicopter hovers inches above the helipad, dear Reader.

The helicopter door slides open.

Two lithe women in black bodysuits drop to the ground. They turn back to the helicopter and lift out a sedan chair. It is covered in a heavy veil on which the fleur-de-lovage has been embroidered in the finest gold thread.

I approach the chair, my head bowed low.

‘Ser Basil’, I say. ‘What a pleasure it is to welcome you to Taizhou Campus at last.’

An arm appears from between the folds of the sedan chair.

I recognize that insect-like arm, dear Reader.

The curtain of the sedan chair is thrown back.

There, reclining on damask cushions, is my nemesis of old – Asafetida Lovage.

‘Dr Ada!’, she rasps, ‘I am here to drive the Synergy Agenda, on behalf of Ser Basil, who has been unavoidably delayed after a little local trouble in Astana branch. Allow me to present my Synergy Enforcement Officers – Rose Madder and Vermilion.’

‘Delighted’, I say to the misses Scarlet.

Dear Reader. All my suspicions are confirmed.


Dear Reader,

In between pressing university business I have just received a call from Darren’s mum, reminding me that there hasn’t been a peep out of Darren since he went to the crypt last week to look for Shiny. She ended the call by intimating that she will cut off the entire Taizhou internet from her underground laboratory in Geneva if he is not soon found alive and well.

Dear Reader. Darren has obviously not inherited his mother’s gene for ruthlessness.

I collect what I need: two torches,* one ancient cat toy (much loved), one girl-guide pocket knife, Janice’s mouse, and my staff, who has been volunteered for the mission by Freya on account of his considerable experience dealing with trouble in the portside bars of the world.

Salty Bob and I enter the Vice-Chancellor’s wine cellar, dear Reader. I press the beak of one of the vultures carved into the Lovage family crest** on the wall, and a slab of the floor moves aside, scraping dreadfully across the cold marble.

We peer down the stairs that lead into the darkness below.

Salty leans in, holding his torch at shoulder height and flashing its pencil-thin beam around the dusty, cavernous space below.

‘FBI!’, he shouts. ‘Put your hands in the air, landlubbers!’

We hear nothing but echoing ubbers, dear Reader, and then, a familiar rumbling sound.

Dear Reader, I place the box on the ground, hold Shiny’s favourite soft toy to the holes of the box, whisper a word of encouragement, and release the catch.

Janice’s tiny mouse sniffs at Shiny’s toy, then skitters down the stairs into the darkness.

‘Follow that mouse’, I say to Salty.

Salty and I head into the depths. Once our eyes adjust, dear Reader, we see, in the corner of the vault, a soft velveteen cushion.

Shiny is asleep on the cushion, snoring gently. The mouse sniffs at her, triumphantly.

And next to Shiny, dear Reader, tied to a radiator, is Darren. He is lying on a bed of old copies of the Daily Wind Instrument (Chinese edition), and next to him, on the radiator, is a strange, elongated fingerprint.

‘But what fiend has done this to Shiny, Darren?’, I cry.

Darren is too overwrought to respond. He merely stares at me, his eyes glinting.

Salty examines the knots in the rope more closely.

‘Call these reef knots!’ he exclaims. ‘These are more like slip knots, and of the most amateur kind!’

But I pay his prattle no heed, dear Reader, for I notice that Darren’s Iron Maiden t-shirt is rumpled.

‘You do look a sight, dear Darren’, I say, as we climb back up the stairs to the Vice-Chancellor’s wine cellar. ‘Change your t-shirt, won’t you, and take one of those bottles over there for the welcoming party’.

Darren brightens a little.

‘The welcoming party?’ he says.

‘Why yes,’ I say. ‘We are all to foregather on the helipad without delay. Ser Basil is about to land’.


*TransFlashlights (circa 1989, Mulder and Scully, dear Reader). 

** Depicting two vultures picking at a lamb’s carcass, dear Reader, with the motto obruentibus symbolismum beneath.

End of Days

Dear Reader,

Janice called me at 2am last night sobbing something about it being the End of Days.

‘Dr Ada!’, she exclaimed. ‘It is the end of the university’s financial year tomorrow, and I have just got round to doing the books! Not only is there an underspend against the IT budget, there is an enormous black hole in your personal research fund. It is as though someone has been using the departmental credit card to buy fripperies and extravagances for their personal benefit!’

‘Never mind the research fund’, I said, stroking my vicuña smoking jacket and adjusting the Persian kilim cushion on which I was resting. ‘We must focus on the IT budget. Clearly, Darren is to blame.* I shall address the underspend in the morning.’

And so you find me now at Taizhou market, dear Reader, where I am told a person may buy almost anything.

Miniature dictionary in hand, I pick my way through rows of indescribable pickled items.

I pause for a moment to get my bearings. A woman standing near a stall of small gerbil-like creatures** watches me.

I point in my dictionary at an exploded diagram showing computer parts.

‘I want one of these’, I say, loudly and clearly. ‘A 鼠.’

‘说请’, she says.

‘Make it so’, I say. (Confidence is the key to successful communication in any language, dear Reader).

The woman disappears for a moment, and then reappears carrying a small, giftwrapped box with little holes in it.

I return to campus, triumphant, and hand the box to Janice.

‘Here is your mouse, dear Janice’, I say. ‘I’m sure it will be easy to connect. Darren used to do it all the time’.

Dear Reader.

I was just slipping on my silk mules when I heard a scream.

It was Janice, dear Reader.

It seems I have bought the wrong kind of mouse.


* Indeed – dear, dear Darren is still missing.

** This is not a market in Islington, dear Reader.

A Number of Strange Occurrences

Dear Reader,

A number of strange occurrences have taken place on campus lately.

I refer not to the blow-pipe containing extract of quinine discovered in the reed bushes by the piranha pond last week, nor to the lacrosse team, floating face down in said pond, nor to the question of whose expert herringbone brickwork interred poor Jade, nor to poor, dear Sigismund of the quivering knitting kneedles, nor to the many, many trophies that have been reported missing since the start of term (most notably, my own 1976 Gold Gymkhana cup).

No, dear Reader.

I refer to the whispering of my own name late at night in the plumbing.

I refer to my rocking chair, rocking back and forth in demented fashion whenever I enter my office.

I refer to the face in the window as I look up from my labours at night, and see, just for a moment, a face like a deathmask, its strangely familiar features grinning back at me.

I refer to my own brush with infinity, as I lay in my deck chair in the cooling shade cast by the benign outstretched hand belonging to the giant gold statue of Ser Basil. Just as Lu-Seal served me my morning refreshment I happened to look up. There, silhouetted against the dazzling sun, was a small, rotund figure, dressed in black from head to toe. The next thing I knew, Lu-Seal had thrown the tray of margaritas over me, causing me to leap from my chair at the very moment the statue toppled, crushing my deckchair beneath Ser Basil’s Girdle of Venus.*

I refer, dear Reader, to the disappearance of both Shiny and Darren.

Dear Reader.

I think I know who is behind this.



* Please consult with the newly opened School of Palmistry, dear Reader.


A Dying Subject

Dear Reader,

You find me on the top floor of the Humanities Lighthouse, gathered together with my staff, ready to conduct the end-of-year Runeology Exam Board.

Dr X, Professor Y and Professor Z approach, wearing the external examiner’s traditional garb of supercilious air and Panama hat.

‘Do take a seat in my new suite of luxury office chairs’, I say. ‘There is such a marvelous view of Taizhou from here’.

While they gaze out around them at the marigold plantations far below, I read out this year’s degree results:

  • Ai-Ling (Level 2, Creative Writing and Runeology) – 2.2
  • Ji (Level 3 Cycling and Runeology) – 2.2
  • Mary-Beth (JYA, Level 4, Philosophy and Runeology) – 2.2
  • Mo-Mo (JYA, Level 3, Fluid Mechanics and Runeology) – 2.2
  • Salty Bob the Sailor (Mature student, auditing Runeology) (Staff). PhD passed on the nod
  • Shiny the Devil Cat (de-registered)* – 1st with distinction in spoken Mandarin
  • May-ling (Level 2, Poetry and Runeology) – 2.2. Dean’s commendation for her ‘Ode to a Turnip’


Dr X notes that in her institution at least one of these papers would be re-marked because of grade inflation.

Professor Y wipes away a tear as she notes that dear Mary-Beth’s dissertation on the Lost Derridean (R)une was publishable, and that she believed her to be, objectively speaking, the single most outstanding student she had ever had the pleasure of examining.

Professor Z bangs his shoe on the desk and says that in his institution externals would be accommodated in the Presidential Suite of the local luxury hotel, and not in the Happy Burger Happy Taizhou Campsite.

I listen. They pause.

‘In my institution’, I say, ‘we do this’.

This time the Trébuchet range does not let me down.

I must write to John Lewis to congratulate them on the pleasing domino effect of three externals leaving the Humanities Lighthouse so swiftly.

It is as well that Runeology is a dying subject, dear Reader.


* Before you ask, Darren has been sent to the Crypt to investigate Shiny’s whereabouts.


A Public Service Announcement

This is a public service announcement from Darren’s Mum. Dr A. is off celebrating the shortlisting of her fictional construct, Carol Adlam, in the World Illustration Awards.

I told her, just before she went off out foreign with my Darren in attendance. Make your sock puppet something dependable, I said. Not one of your idealistic artistic types. Make sure you think up a name completely different from your own, and if you must develop a backstory, for the love of all things holy do not make her a former academic.

But nobody ever listens to me. Normal service will be resumed shortly.

Darren’s Mum


Chief IT Officer, CERN

Large Hadron Collider

under Geneva



P.S. Darren I have fixed the problem with the comments and have ironed your Harley Davidson t-shirt.





Things Fall Apart

Dear Reader,

I come to you from the Information Nexus, where I have just cut the ribbon to open the Jade Dragon Short Loan & DVD Mausoleum.

As I glide back to my rooms, I am joined by Dr Jung, dear Sigismund’s successor.

He seems a little agitated.

‘Are you having those dreadful dreams again, dear Karl?’, I say. ‘Is it the archetype with the beard and the bosoms?’

‘But haven’t you heard?’, says Karl, panting a little as he hurries to keep up with me.

‘I have heard many, many things, dear Karl’, I say, gnomically.

‘There is terrible news!’, he cries. ‘Ser Basil has just realized that the 300-million pound Asafetida Lovage Student Experience Ski Resort with accompanying All-Weather Lid* must be paid for.  The creditors are circling like sharks! The FBI have impounded Ser Basil’s helicopter and are swarming all over his vineyard! Someone called Chuck has been wearing a wire!’

‘How very confusing’, I say, calmly.

‘Student fees are to be doubled, and there will be a 150% increase in the cost of all burgers from the Happy Taizhou Happy Burger Catering Corps! But even that will not do! No! No!’

‘No?’, I say, exuding a Zen-like serenity.

‘No!’, shrieks Karl.

The bushes by the piranha pond rustle ominously.

‘Taizhou is to be merged with Astana campus! Recruitment for Runeology is to cease forthwith! 200 jobs will be lost! All redundancies are to be entirely voluntary! Voluntary, I tell you!’

At this, something whirrs by my ear. Poor, dear Karl clutches his chest, gasps, and topples into the piranha pond.

Dear Reader. I must speak to Ser Basil directly.


* Formerly Arts Faculty

The Many Uses of a Brick

Dear Reader,

You find me hurrying to the library after receiving notification that the complete corporae* I ordered last month has arrived.

It is a significant body of work, dear reader, and I cannot wait to sniff the ancient vellum.

I walk past the skips full of books, a hod carrier, a digger, and a discarded bicycle helmet. I pass through the doors of the basil lovage information nexus.

But what is this I see, dear Reader, rising up from the centre of the breakout zone?

It is some sort of edifice.

As the crowds open before me I see a flash of colour.

I recognize that orange, dear Reader.

It is Jade Dragon, interred in full cycling kit in a sepulchre made of brick.

As I admire the half-bats and queen closers framing dear Jade’s unfortunate, blue features, a thought strikes me.

‘This is the work of a skilled bricklayer!’, I exclaim. ‘It takes immense skill to produce such a fine herringbone, and what’s more, without an inner lintel!’

The crowd stares at me. I pause.

Another thought strikes me, dear Reader.

It is a well-known fact that the only person with advanced bricklaying skills this side of the Great Wall is none other than yours truly.

As I consider this, a representative of the common people approaches me.

He is squat, with protruding teeth, and is wearing overalls emblazoned with the logo ‘SQ Nutkin, Moving the Earth 4U’.

‘Cash is fine, Dr A’, he says, ‘or a cheque made out to Simon Nutkin, thanking you’.

Dear Reader, do you feel as confused as I do?


* hyperplural of corpora, as required by the university’s Equality and Diversity policy.