Letter from our Minister
Not the seasonal play
A story for Christmas, told by your minister, John
The undergraduate stopped outside the study door and took a deep breath. She re-read the nameplate: ‘Professor D. Phil’.
And below that: ‘Head of Cosmology’.
Neither calmed her nerves, but the message was urgent. She clenched her fist, rapped at the door, and went straight in.
Half a world away, and the same distance in time as it takes starshine to travel a couple of light-years, a pale youth shuffled from one foot to the other. “I tole you we shudda booked,” he hissed. “Cudda done it on the internet.”
His companion in the queue glared at him. “Wouldn’t have worked. You know Mam goes through everything on my smartphone.” She sighed, “And you’re snifflin’ again.”
“Can’t help it. It’s me asthma. Look at all the sawdust they’ve put on the floor. Sets me off. Just like the workshop at home.” The youth looked up. “Queue’s movin’,” he said hopefully.
“What do you mean—in the wrong place?” snapped the professor.
The student quaked. “Co-ordinates aren’t quite what was expected, sir. Not by much. But significant.” An inner voice growled, Why, when the department is stuffed with more post-doctoral researchers than a field full of radio antennae, am I the one sent to tell bad news? Aloud, she said, “Doctor Balthasar thinks you should come urgently.”
The man at the desk looked up. “I’m sorry, but without a reservation—”
”But we’ve tried everywhere,” wailed the youth. He shot a glance of despair at his companion. “Look, ’aven’t you at least gotta chair she can sit down on? She’s on her last legs, poor fing.”
“Gerroff, those are my chestnuts,” snarled Jose.
“Yeah?” said his friend Ash. “And whose quad bike was it we came up here on, that’s what I’d like to know. If you’re going to be stingy, you can walk back. Anyway,” he said triumphantly, “I’ve found mushrooms.” He looked around. “Where have those dratted animals got to?”
“Just don’t tell anyone,” said the desk clerk, as he heaved at the locking lever to the storage unit. “I really shouldn’t be doing this. It’s against health and safety and everything.”
“No one’s gonna know ’xcept us. ’S’better than nuffink. You gonna be all right in ’ere, Mares?”
The girl blinked away tears, nodded, and then froze. She gripped the icy edge of the corrugated container door until the pain died away again. Why hadn’t anyone warned her about this?
”You got a few blankets to spare?” she asked the clerk.
“Yes, sir, we re-ran the calculations. Several times.” Doctor Balthasar sighed. There was a time when working with the prof had seemed a good idea. A career opportunity with a leading figure in a renowned institution. Now he found himself asking whether it had been a wise choice. It wasn’t that the man was unintelligent. He was simply so…inflexible.
“I can’t see how the wretched target point can have moved by so much,” grumbled the case-hardened professor.
“Perhaps a field expedition—” suggested Doctor Balthasar.
“Departmental budget wouldn’t stand it, you fool.”
“Maybe as an optional addition to the curriculum,” he ventured. “Upon payment of an extra tuition fee. Some of the overseas students are quite well-resourced…”
Night had fallen. So had a hard frost. Ash tucked his scarf into his collar and pulled his woollen hat low over his ears. “Hope Nick has got that fire lit,” he said to Jose as they made their way around the hill. “And don’t let any of those strays wander off in the dark again. It took us hours to find the last lot.”
Thank God for Amazon, thought the skinny youth. All this brown packin’ paper scrunches up quite cosy. And a box just the right size! The box and its contents were at Mares’s side. Both were quiet now, exhausted from their respective labours. The air was full of assorted odours. Overlaid on the chilly background tang of rust and mustiness were the warm fragrance of new milk, and the fading saltiness of broken waters. The woman on the night desk had said she’d pop back whenever she could. Now it was time for him to get some rest too. Not that his eyes would allow themselves to close.
“We gotta go!” yelled Ash. His heart was still pounding, but no longer with fear. At first they’d thought it was a police helicopter, with its searchlight and loud-hailer and everything. But the announcement sounded nothing like anything he had seen on a cop show. And the flock, which would have been in turmoil beneath a low flying aircraft, remained weirdly peaceful. He barely comprehended any of the message. Yet it was strangely heartwarming. He knew he must ride into town and find out for himself. He blipped the throttle of his quad bike. “Come on, guys!”
“Aw,” complained Jose. “But I just got these chestnuts going on an open fire.”
The undergraduate loaded a final box of scientific instruments into the Land Rover. Some of them were wrapped in gold foil to protect them from stray cosmic rays. She stepped back. She wasn’t going on the expedition. They hadn’t picked any women from the department. Strange, when there were so many bright ones to choose from.
“I really do think you should be coming with us, professor,” said Doctor Balthasar, with his fingers crossed behind his back.
“At this time of year?” the professor boomed. “You must be joking. My children would be most disappointed if I missed their school seasonal play.”