Having incautiously clicked “reply all” when emailing a colleague, Boris Litvak approached the vice-chancellor’s office with some trepidation.
“What a pleasure”, said Veronica Smith-Carstairs, without inviting him to sit down, “to be able to tell you we are making you an emeritus.”
“But that’s when you leave, isn’t it?” replied Boris.
“Exactly. And you get to keep your email account but, regrettably, not your car park card.”
“No,” Veronica snapped, eager to get on with the business of closing the Classics department, whose usefulness, she couldn’t help feeling, had ended about 1,300 years before it was founded.
Veronica had left a career in what was politely known as investment banking when the investigation had begun to close in. She had assumed that running a university must be relaxing by comparison, and had been enticed by the free accommodation in a building once owned by slave traders, a profession not entirely remote from her own. But she had quickly been disabused by squabbles over minuscule increments, complaints about the heating and meetings where the words “Freedom of Information request” struck terror in anyone who had ever attempted to discipline a student or discuss global warming. And her salary was appalling.
“But what do I do?” asked Boris, searching in his pocket for a tissue but finding only a tangle of bus tickets held together by a sticky throat lozenge.
“Do? Why, nothing. That’s what retirement is all about.”
“If you must show your face in public again, join the ex-staff association. I think they go on walks, have allotments, meet in Waitrose: things like that. Or, better still, take a cruise.”
“Was it the email?” Boris asked, a tear glistening on his moustache like a drop of dew in a spider’s web.
“Of course it was the fucking email, you stupid man. Now if you don’t mind, I have other people to emeritise.”
And so it was that Boris found himself as guest lecturer on Dear Leader Cruise Ships’ maiden voyage along the picturesque west coast of North Korea. He had assumed that the invitation was the result of the usual confusion between him and a similarly named historian who was always on television waving his arms as if semaphoring for another glass of port. In fact, he discovered, he had been recommended by Veronica, for whom the words “rub”, “salt” and “wound” were evidently natural bedfellows. Apparently hers had been a familiar face in Pyongyang before all those terrible lies emerged about money laundering.
The ship in the brochure looked suspiciously top-heavy, but the drink allowance was too tempting to turn down. Boris was none too sure why cruise passengers would be interested in his account of the Siege of Vienna and, indeed, no one was, even though the only other entertainment was provided by the on-board television and consisted of an overexcited woman, seemingly dressed for a tea ceremony, thrown into orgasmic delight by the fact that the US could now be evaporated.
But that was OK: it gave him more time to take advantage of the drink allowance, even though this turned out to apply only to an alcohol with a curious insect inside and that, when spilled, left a hole in his 30-year-old corduroy trousers. So began his retirement, courtesy of Veronica – whose husband, coincidentally, was an auditor for the financially challenged Universities Superannuation Scheme.
Meanwhile, back in England, Veronica herself was thinking of investing the university’s reserves by shorting the dollar.
Christopher Bigsby is director of the Arthur Miller Institute and professor of American studies at the University of East Anglia.