Ren goes back to his office after his classes. He had intended to go home afterwards, but he’s feeling a lot better now, and he needs to get some work done. But Compton spots him going in, and comes to see him.
Compton looks bemused at the state of Ren, not that he looks that good himself. ‘Well, that was an interesting night, wouldn’t you say?’
‘Indubitably so,’ says Ren.
‘What happened when you ran after Hedley?’
‘I found him. Then we went and had a few drinks somewhere away from Beresford. What happened at the restaurant?’
‘I don’t suppose you know what happened. George collapsed with a suspected heart attack, and we had to call an ambulance.’
‘The staff wanted to kick us all out because of the fight, but they could hardly do so with George in such a bad way, waiting for an ambulance. So Beresford alone was given his marching orders, which he took with bad grace. He didn’t even pay for his meal, insisting that it should come out of the department’s visiting speaker fund. He said Hedley had forfeited his right to the free meal.’
‘Arsehole. So what’s the situation with George? I assume from your light tone that he isn’t dead. Or isn’t dead yet.’
‘He’s okay. Turns out it wasn’t a heart attack. They think it’s something to do with his oesophagus. They let him out of hospital this morning. He’s okay, but a little weak. But then he’s not the strongest person to start with.’
This is an understatement. George is, in Ren and Compton’s view, the most deliberately unfit person the Western world had seen for around two hundred and fifty years, since, in their estimation, Lord Melbury of Chichester, who had himself carried everywhere by his servants, and who once went eleven years without ever standing up. The last time George did any physical exercise was in a school PE class at age thirteen, after which he got excused from all such activities by way of notes from his mother.
That was nearly fifty years ago, and the memory of what physical exercise is, and what it feels like, has all but completely faded from George’s memory. He drives everywhere whenever possible, even to the corner shop, always parking as close as he can to his destination. He constantly wrangles on the phone with the Timetabling department over where his classes are to be held – he wants to minimise the distance he has to walk to every class, so he complains every time his classes are put in teaching rooms across the other side of campus. He even complains about how far away the library is from the department, even though it’s only a few hundred yards, and he has instigated a move for the University to create a library delivery service for lazy – or, as he puts it, busy – academics. He waited years to bag the office closest to the men’s toilets, even though it isn’t one of the bigger ones, because that saves him having to walk up and down the corridor all day to empty his bladder.
‘Why in God’s name would I want to do that?’ was what he always says when asked to play tennis, or participate in some other athletic foolishness. He says it in a genuinely puzzled voice. ‘I’m essentially a bibliophage,’ he allegedly once said to Compton, ‘a pure intelligence accidentally shackled to this monstrous world. If I had to be tied to something physical, it should have been a desk, not a human body.’ When George says such things the tone is very much tongue-in-cheek, but no-one thinks the content is far from the mark.
Walter swears that he once asked George, years ago, if he wanted to join the Humanities cricket team, and George smiled and said, ‘The Germans aren’t invading, so there is no need for me to train to go over the top, is there? The bulldozer has been invented, and for the tasks that it’s ill-equipped for there’s still a plentiful supply of unemployed young men with muscles, so I’ll get on with the life of the mind, thanks all the same.’
George has stopped himself from becoming fat by the simple expedient of not eating much. Eating isn’t something he is interested in anyway – in fact, he’s not much interested in anything outside philosophy, except maybe some history. (It is impossible to imagine him being interested in sex. He does have a wife, but once you’ve seen her it’s even harder to imagine him being interested in sex. In fact, once you’ve seen her it’s impossible to imagine yourself ever having an interest in sex again.) Also, he always said, not eating much prolongs your life, a claim which current research backs up, as George now insists on telling everyone. However, the combination of a long-term lack of both exercise and food has resulted in George’s body becoming very weak, and he looks much older than his years. People are loathe to physically touch him for fear that he will crumple. People are loathe to close a door near him for fear that the resulting puff of air will blow him away. Some people are even afraid to raise their voices to him for fear that he’ll physically fall apart once the vibrations strike him. His stick-thin limbs would disgrace a bird, and his lack of subcutaneous fat means that his skin looks extra wrinkly, like a three-D scale model of a landscape shaped by ancient water flows. Not even the students call him ‘Scrotum’, because it’s just too obvious, although some students find ‘Ballbag’ hard to resist, on account of George’s last name, which is Bagnall.
‘Is there going to be any fallout?’ asks Ren.
‘Not unless the restaurant complains, which they probably won’t. It’s not like they never ever have loud drunks in there who get a bit violent.’
‘Poor old George. Hope he’s all right.’
‘He says he’s fine. Right as rain apparently. He’s coming back in tomorrow.’
‘Really? Why doesn’t he take a few days off to rest up?’
‘He doesn’t want people to think he’s past it. Besides, rest is a word without application in George’s life. There do not exist the necessary divisions between suitable activities for the word to have any meaning.’
‘Whereas my life has some very clear divisions, such as between the drunk and sober periods.’
‘Quite. Speaking of that, you look distinctly feculent. Did you put a lot away with the Beagle?’
‘Quite a lot, yes.’
‘I presume he made a pass at you?’
‘Why do you presume that? Because of my obvious irresistible sexual magnetism, or because he’s known for it? Has he done it to you?’
‘No, I’m not young enough for him. He’s known for it. And you do have irresistible sexual magnetism, although only to old queens. As soon as you went after him people said don’t leave Ren alone with Hedley.’
‘Why is Beresford so against him? Does Beresford have a son studying philosophy at his University?’
‘No, Beresford is just an embarrassing, belligerent turd-turkey who is constantly spoiling for a fight. About things he knows nothing about. Which is most things, not just philosophy.’
‘Yes, but it’s perhaps more embarrassing that our department has members who know less philosophy than Beresford does. He knows much more than Verna Leach, for instance. If you had to choose between her or Beresford to teach on any central area of philosophy, you’d pick him.’
‘True, but then I’d pick most second-year undergraduates over Verna in that sort of situation.’
‘The same applies to Tony fucking Shaver,’ said Ren. ‘And Adelia. How can we be a credible department with people like that in it?’
‘Tony, Adelia, Verna, none of them are even philosophers, really. Adelaide Newman, at least, did some real philosophy at Cambridge, even if she did go off the rails later. But those three, I doubt any of them have ever taken an analytic philosophy module. If they did I expect they got a poor mark. Are you aware yet that Tony’s undergraduate degree is in Sociology, not Philosophy?’
‘You’re fucking kidding me. How is he teaching here? That explains a lot.’
‘He did a few subsid Philosophy modules as part of his Sociology course, I gather, in things like Marxism and Foucault, and got friendly with one of the radical lecturers in the Philosophy department, who encouraged him to do a Philosophy PhD.’
‘How was he allowed to do a PhD in Philosophy on the strength of that?’
‘It was at the University of Chippenham in the mid-eighties.’
‘Say no more.’
‘The topic of his PhD was something like “A Foucaldian Analysis of Worker Power Struggles in British Trade Unions 1945-1955”.’
‘That explains why he’s such an expert on metaphysics then. Why is he wasted teaching Marxism, and Philosophy of the Social Sciences? He should be teaching Plato and Aristotle. How did we ever give him a job?’
‘Derek’s fault, really. Adelaide was on the hiring panel, and she was of course determined to hire whoever was the most sympathetic to feminism, plus she’d previously been at Chippenham so some of her old partners-in-arms tipped her the wink with Tony. Derek was also on the hiring panel as the analytic, but he knew of Tony through left-wing circles, and thought him politically sound, even if he wasn’t analytic. The outside person on the panel was a sociologist, who thought Tony was marvellous, so that’s why we got him rather than Leighton Hyde.’
‘Leighton Hyde applied? As in the rising-star-of-cognitive-science-Leighton-Hyde?’
‘Yes, Walter, Martha and George had to fight to even get him on the shortlist. But with that hiring panel he stood no chance.’