Mountain ranges form and disintegrate while Ren sleeps. Finally he opens his eyes a fraction. His vision is tenebrous, obscured by non-philosophical gunk, while his brain is quietly telling him, ‘You’re not going to like today. That’s no fucking joke. You’re really not going to like today.’ But he thinks that maybe today can just be avoided altogether by going back to sleep, until he catches a glimpse of the clock just as he closes his eyes. 13:25. 1:25 in the afternoon. Oh God. He has three classes starting at 2pm. He hadn’t set the alarm because, well, a bit squiffy last night, dear boy, and also, not even he needs to set an alarm for a 2pm class. Or so he thought.
He jumps out of bed and immediately keels over onto his knees with agonising head pain. Even if he can make it in time is he in any fit state to be able to teach? They’re only seminars, where the students discuss the lecture content with the ‘seminar leader’, but seminars can be even harder to teach than lectures, and his brain feels like it has been drained of fluid, dried out for a while, and then topped back up with a solution of liquid bleach. But better he’s there in a bad state than not there at all. He goes to the kitchen cupboard. He thinks, or rather prays, that he has some prescription-level codeine tablets left from a pack given to him by a biochemist friend. There’s only two left. But two will do. He washes them, and two paracetamol tablets, down with a glass of water. Of Hedley there is no sign. He has vacated the premises.
There’s no time to change out of the clothes he was wearing last night. He rushes out of the door and gets in the old bomb he bought when he arrived in Grayvington. It was the cheapest car in the local classifieds section, which he bought to tide him over until he could afford to get a better one. Perhaps that was a mistake, he thinks. It’s from the eighties, and it’s already had to go into the local garage for repairs. Right now he needs a car he can trust, and this one isn’t it.
He wishes he could just call in sick. But you can’t just call in sick because you have a hangover, or even because you’re, well, sick. Unless it’s tuberculosis you turn up and teach. Of course there are high-flyers who’ll miss classes because they’re jetting off to a conference in New York that week, but even then they would give plenty of notice, and usually they would have arranged cover. You never just blow off a class, especially a lecture. You can’t have forty-five, or one hundred and twenty, or one hundred and eighty, or three hundred and fifty students turning up to discover a notice on the lecture room door saying today’s lecture is cancelled. Unless you currently have a steering wheel column where your chest should be.
And if you did miss a lecture that would usually be a disaster in terms of the course structure. It’s almost impossible to reschedule a lecture, unless you have a tiny class, and if you can’t reschedule it that puts you a week behind, and that screws up the essays, because that’s one less essay topic for the essay due in two weeks, and some students had already planned to write on the content of the missed lecture, and the seminars after that lecture were all going to be on that material, but now none of them know that material. And it’s hard to fit in an extra lecture at the end of term, which means that however you rejig things you’re going to lose some material, which will make the exam more difficult to set. If you try to incorporate the content of the missing lecture into the remaining lectures that will take weeks of rewriting – rewriting lectures for that sort of purpose always takes vastly longer than you’d think – and it will make all the remaining lectures unsatisfactory, as you try to cover too much material in too little time. So although it may seem an unnecessary hardship to give your lecture when you’re practically on your death bed, not doing so is worse than actually dying.
Admittedly he is more macho about all this than some of the more delicate members of his department, notably Adalia Greenflower. But she just teaches the same postmodern make-believe every week. She could give one lecture, or thirty-seven, and it wouldn’t make any difference. But really, though, you have to do your teaching, regardless of your condition. Not only can you not let students down, but there’s also the fact that, financially speaking, Universities rely on teaching. Governments might still fund some Physics departments if they didn’t teach, but they aren’t going to fund Philosophy departments if they don’t teach, or if they mess up their teaching.
And teaching undergraduates is the public face of Philosophy, seeing as no-one outside Philosophy ever reads what philosophers write any more. (This is in fact true of most University disciplines.) If philosophers started teaching only when they felt like it, that was going to get out. Hundreds of undergraduates would tell their friends and families, newspaper headlines would ensue, investigations would be called, and unless there was a swift about-turn that would be the end of academic philosophy. So even though it’s just some seminars, and for his own course at that, he’s going to do them, hangover or not. If the old-school Mummers could carouse all night and still turn up to rehearsals the next morning, then he could at least make a 2pm class. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.
As he drives he is jolted out of his thoughts by his brain detecting a smell that shouldn’t be there. It’s faint, but it’s unmistakable. Semen. Nothing else smells like it. Why does his car smell of semen? It certainly isn’t his own. But how could somebody else have spunked in his car? He’s heard of vandals pissing in your car, but ejaculating? He sometimes leaves his windows a little bit open, but how could anyone… Maybe it’s old semen from the previous owner encrusted in his seat that is being brought out again because of his movements in the seat over the last few weeks. He tries to sit as still as possible, which is a good idea anyway because he feels like he has a psychotic imp inside his skull who is applying and tightening a clamp around the front left part of his brain. Tightening it beyond any level that even an imp could think reasonable. The ejaculate smell is so faint that he thinks he must be imagining it. A phantosmia. Probably caused by olfactory bulb damage, hopefully temporary, brought about by an excessive alcohol intake.
Whether or not the car is tainted by semen, it at least provides him with a breakdown-free ride to the University today. When he gets onto the campus, at 1:45, he has to be careful, because clueless students with their heads in the clouds often drift across the roads in front of the cars, oblivious to the presence of the metallic death machines in their midst, and his reflexes are going to be slower today. So many students wander around the campus in a daze, their heads full of philosophy, science, history, romance, current politics and the self-importance of youth, talking excitedly to the other idiots they’ve made friends with, that the idea that a car might, in this very oasis of learning, mangle their fresh body or throw it thirty yards up into the air and then back down onto the hard road, breaking their neck, seems very remote to them, despite the fact that cars are passing them by the whole time.
Can he find a parking spot? Some people should have fucked off for lunch, but possibly those spots have been filled by people coming in at lunchtime, or coming back from lunch. He drives around the Terminal building where Philosophy is located, but there’s nothing. He feels the pain in his head acutely. He goes over to the car park near Psychology. Nothing. His brain increases its throbbing. Did someone add some pesticide to the bleach solution sloshing about in his skull? Chemistry building? Yes, a spot. Yes, they added pesticide. He parks, but now he’ll have to run to get to the Terminal Building on time.
It’s a horrible run, if one could even call it a run. For some reason he is favouring the right side of his body, like he has hemiparesis. The way his brain feels, he may have had a stroke and just not noticed it over the headache. And he’s barely even noticing the headache right now over the screaming of his body to stop running and lie down on the footpath for a half hour’s rest. Never has bitumen looked so comfortable and inviting; he just wants to snuggle up into it. But he pushes on like a marathoner completing the last few dozen yards, dragging the left side of his body behind him, like that marathon runner everyone saw a few years ago who had something go very wrong with their body just before the finish line, but who was determined to get over the line regardless. If you’ve run almost twenty-six miles, you’ve got to do the last few yards to get over the line, whatever the physical cost. Stopping now is not an option.
He reaches the front door of the Terminal building, and shifts down a gear, from a semi-run to a brisk walk, trying to hide his horror-film gasping, trying to appear normal. It’s 1:55: he’s going to make it. But he still needs to take the stairs rather than the lift, because that will be quicker. His mind is, at least, distracted from the awfulness of climbing the stairs in his condition by blurry and disjointed memories of last night which have started to seep, unbidden and unwanted, into his consciousness. A paralytic, backlit Hedley, stroking himself while framed by the bedroom door. Oh fuck me. He remembers now Hedley’s membership offer. No wonder the greasy fucker scarpered this morning.
He gets to his office at 1:57. Thank God none of his colleagues are in the corridor at the same time to see him, he must look a mess, but there’s no time to sort himself out. He gets his attendance sheets and a pen. The first room he’s teaching in isn’t far away. I’m going to make it, he thinks, although I’m not sure my body is.