Quantum of solace: John Gilbey’s seasonal chiller

The combination of Brexit and the Covid pandemic has driven change throughout academia, even reaching the scholarly backwater that is the University of Rural England. But perhaps it doesn’t have to be that way, writes John Gilbey. Things could be better – or much, much worse…

December 24, 2020
Illustration of a man opening door to an empty room.
Source: David Parkins

The harassed-looking bloke from Estates was apologetic, which was a first in itself. He stood, formidably masked, in the doorway while I snooped around the room. “There isn’t much we can do about the decor, I’m afraid – but as soon as the lockdown ends, we’ll get the lads to do you a coat of magnolia and some carpet tiles, if you like.”

I was more worried about the crumbling plasterwork above the window, but I nodded and thanked him. After so long in the sweaty pandemonium of a shared office, the idea of having a room to myself was exciting, even if I’d only got hold of it because of pandemic-induced social distancing. However welcome, though, my new quarters had clearly not been used for many, many years. Gothically Victorian in proportions, with a high ceiling and complex leaded window, it lacked only a flight of bats to win full approval as a Hammer Horror film set.

Thankfully, the crumbling leather-topped wooden desk, glass-fronted bookcases and slate slab benchtop attached to one wall gave some suggestion of its true function. The dusty parquet floor was stacked with piles of defunct journals, crispy from sun and central heating, and a very dead pot plant squatted discouragingly on the windowsill – but the room was on the floor above my lab and would do for now.

“I’ll take it!”

I slapped the slate microscope bench proprietorially and smiled at the man from Estates, who nodded and pointed to the key in the door lock.

“Try not to lose it,” he sighed, “I’m not sure we’ve got a master for this one...”

I assured him that I would take extra care.

“Just one thing,” I added, as he turned to retreat down the hall. “Why are there two doors into the corridor on the same wall?”

He shrugged. “They’ve carved these rooms about a bit over the years, I guess this one was divided at some point.” Squinting up at the high ceiling in a builderly manner, he pointed to a double line in the plaster. “There you go: it must have been a bit like working at the bottom of a well with it chopped into two.”

I tried the handle of the second door, but it didn’t open. “No key for this one, I suppose?” I asked, receiving in return the look I deserved, combining overwork, boredom and a longing to express his true feelings about academics.

“No, sorry – but I hope you’ll find one door enough...”

The rest of the day was spent running up and down the stairs from the lab, shifting enough of my stuff to make good use of the office. Then I managed to corner a usable wi-fi signal over by the window and dragged the desk over to put my laptop on. Plugging in the coffee filter was the final symbolic gesture of taking possession, and while it dripped I started emptying the top drawer of the desk into a recycling bag.

I hauled out sheaves of old letterheads from decades ago, which competed for space with offprint request cards, airmail envelopes, boxes of staples and scrunched-up carbon paper. Then, jammed at the back, I found an old tobacco tin and an ancient briar pipe. The tin rattled when shaken, and popping it open revealed a large key, which I found fitted the lock of the second door. It opened reluctantly, but, sadly, without any dramatic sound effects. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the corridor outside looked boringly familiar, so I wandered back in and poured myself a mug of my special roast.

Perhaps it was the effect of the coffee, but by the time I was halfway through the mug I had a nagging doubt. Opening the second door again, I looked more carefully at the corridor, then I closed that door and opened the first one. Odd…

I repeated the exercise to make sure I wasn’t imagining it, but with the same result. The carpet in the corridor outside had a different colour depending on which door you viewed it through. When I crouched down to check, I found that it even had a slightly different pattern. A trick of the light, I told myself. But, slightly spooked, I grabbed my rucksack and headed for home – picking up a takeaway and a bottle of wine on the way.

Despite drinking most of the bottle, I didn’t sleep well. As there were no teaching sessions booked for the next day, I nipped into the department early to solve this enigma once and for all.

I decided to take a logical approach, figuring that if I stood with my back to the window with both doors open the carpet would be under the same illumination. This resulted in problem number two. For some reason that eluded me, and gave me a whirling sense of unease, only a single door could be opened at any one time.

I thought for a minute or two, then walked into the corridor through the second door. After a moment of hesitation – a long moment, admittedly – I closed the door and walked the few paces along the corridor to the first door.

A thrill of panic sizzled through me when I found it was locked. Thankfully, this evaporated when I realised that the key was in my pocket. But, opening the first door, I got a profound shock that ate away at my resolve and brought a sudden tremor to my left hand. The desk was no longer by the window. It was back in the middle of the room. Not only that, the laptop was missing and my rucksack was nowhere to be seen.

Truly scared now, I shut the first door and went back through the corridor to the second – which revealed the room as it had been moments before.

Slumped in the single chair the office afforded, I pondered my options. Clearly, something was seriously adrift with either reality or my relationship to it – but what to do about this was less certain. I could relock the second door and hide away the key, as perhaps the previous occupant of the room had done – but then I’d never know if there was a bigger picture. Alternatively, I could go out of the second door and follow the subtly different corridor to Lord knows where – an intriguing yet terrifying prospect.

For once, curiosity overrode my deeply engrained sense of anxiety and I walked hesitantly out through the second door, closing it behind me.

Illustration of a man looking behind at zombies coming up the stairs and a pair of legs on the floor.

At first, few things looked different – but as I walked down the stairs, I realised the walls were newly painted and the research posters that lined the lower corridor were oddly unfamiliar. The tea room was quiet when I reached it, but even here the worktop was no longer stained and a shiny new coffee machine had replaced the leaking boiler by the sink. The sole occupant, Anne – my head of department – looked up as I entered.

“Hello, John!” she said with surprise, “I thought you were still in Florence. Did the project meeting finish early? And what’s with the mask? You look unsettlingly like my dentist. Halitosis, is it?”

Flustered, but trying to fit in, I slipped off my Covid mask and gave her some bullshit about having caught a cold on the flight back.

A contract meeting in Florence? Ha! Those were the days! Brexit had seen off any chance of building on our first project with the Italians – I can still taste the glorious pasta and wine from those long, blissfully sunlit lunches…

This gave me an idea and, settling into a comfy chair with an exaggeratedly casual air, I began to ask a few leading questions. What had I missed while I was away? Never one to hold back, my boss jumped straight in.

“Well, Keith and Emma have scored a paper in Nature – which is about time, I have to say. What else? Oh, the environment folk have nailed another few million from the EU for their pandemic early warning system upgrades – this generation is based around wastewater and HVAC autonomous monitoring nodes, all mesh networked into the new WHO infrastructure, so we’re benefiting from American investment again. Can you imagine where we’d be if they’d elected that clown in 2016? God almighty! By the way, why are you sat way over there? Do I smell or something?”

I assured her that she didn’t and blamed my social distancing on extreme sweatiness – which was, by now, real enough. Elation didn’t quite cover it. Finding a version of my life in which EU funding still existed gave me a fuzzy warm glow that went all the way to my toes – and this world was clearly also Covid- and Trump-free. Could it get any better? Throwing caution aside, I asked her why the department had been so successful recently.

“Fundamentally? Well, seeing off those lying bigots who wanted us out of Europe was probably the turning point, and heaven knows what would have happened to HE if the campaigners hadn’t got their way over ditching tuition fees – that  doesn’t bear thinking about. Hey, where are you going?”

I was heading to the Gents to be violently sick. I was already unnerved and wildly disoriented by the turn of events – the disappearance of fees had tipped me over the edge.

Yet as I washed my face and dried it on a suspiciously soft paper towel, I found myself greedily wondering if this was the only alternative reality available to me. Were there even better options? Going back upstairs, I walked through the first door and exited again through the second. Same corridor, same carpet – yet the light fittings had changed and the paintwork was a different colour. I set off to explore what this version had to offer.

After perhaps half a dozen such circuits, and a loop back to check I could still skip through realities in the other direction to get home safely, I was feeling bewildered and spent from the rapid sequence of changes.

I’d been through some interesting options – one where the head of department was Trevor rather than Anne, another where the tea room was gone completely and had become a new lab. But then came the world where nobody in the room recognised me – or even my name when I asked if I was around.

This discovery made me particularly thoughtful, and I fled back to what I suddenly thought of as the sanctuary of my attic room. Opening the second door this time brought me up cold. The corridor was in ruins. Smoke stains and foul graffiti covered the walls, while rubbish – and worse – littered the floor. An unspeakable stench made me look to the left, where the remains of a human body protruded obscenely from the stairwell. The shoes seemed familiar. Clearly, in this collection of worlds, academic fortunes could go down as well as up.

As I stood, shaking, in the doorway I heard a distant, guttural roaring. Far below me, numberless feet were attacking the lower flights of the staircase. The sound grew louder, a deep, obsessive cry of hunger and rage that threatened to engulf the building itself. With a huge effort of will, I slammed the door shut and locked it.

Home. I had to get home. But which home? Even if it was where I really came from, the world of masks and isolation wasn’t anything like as attractive to me as the version without Covid, Brexit or fees. Glossing over the unknown risk of meeting myself coming back from Florence, I decided I’d risk it – and worry about the paradoxes later.

By now, the mob was right outside the second door. The handle was turned savagely and fists, or perhaps clubs, began beating against the heavy wooden panels. The frame shook, but held – for now.

Backing away, I put my hand on the other door. There was no noise from behind it and, opening it a mere crack, I was hugely relieved to find that it still led into the previous world. I fled, running reverse loops back through the multiple pairs of first and second doors, barely aware of the shadow worlds I was tearing through in my terror-stricken rout.

Then, abruptly, my carousel of realities came shuddering to a halt. In front of me, blocking the corridor by the second door, the man from Estates was talking on his phone while a kneeling colleague busily drilled out the fixing holes for a new door lock. Pausing, he threw the last shattered remains of two old brass locks into a bucket next to him.

Mr Estates turned as he finished his call, pulled down his face mask and smiled at me.

“Sorry if I was a bit abrupt yesterday – it had been one of those days. Anyway, I’ve brought forward the refurb programme for this floor, and we’re just putting in the last of the smart door locks. So you won’t have to worry about the keys any more: just use your university card to lock and unlock. If you could just give us about 10 minutes, we’ll have you sorted.”

Damn! In my haste to get back, I had clearly overshot my target and arrived, instead, at my real home. Turning sharply, I nipped back through the office to the second door, wrenched it open – and came face to face with the man holding the drill. It would be hard to say which of us was more startled. Whatever weird quantum happenstance had caused this navigable gateway across the multiverse, it clearly hadn’t survived this violation of the door locks. I was once again trapped in my own reality.

Sick at heart, I leaned against the edge of the desk and gazed forlornly out of the window – thinking of those other worlds just a heartbeat away. Behind me, I could sense Mr Estates exchange meaningful glances with his colleague.

“Are you all right, mate?” he asked gently.

I didn’t trust myself to turn around; tears of frustration and loss were dripping on to the already stained leather of the desk. Trying to bring myself under control, I gazed past the dead pot plant to the empty, darkening street below and thought for a moment.

“Yes, somewhere I am.”

John Gilbey is a writer based in West Wales who is still looking for an agent. He is a tutor in the department of computer science at Aberystwyth University and has been chronicling the adventures of the University of Rural England since 1989.

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