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Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, Page 2

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  “So, young MacDuff,” said the Professor once he was seated and flapping his napkin open, “pleasure to see you again, my dear fellow. Glad you could come. No idea what all this is about,” he added, peering round the hall in consternation. “All the candles and silver and business. Generally means a special dinner in honour of someone or something no one can remember anything about except that it means better food for a night.”

  He paused and thought for a moment, and then said, “It seems odd, don't you think, that the quality of the food should vary inversely with the brightness of the lighting. Makes you wonder what culinary heights the kitchen staff could rise to if you confined them to perpetual darkness. Could be worth a try, I think. Got some good vaults in the college that could be turned over to the purpose. I think I showed you round them once, hmmm? Nice brickwork.”

  All this came as something of a relief to his guest. It was the first indication his host had given that he had the faintest recollection who he was. Professor Urban Chronotis, the Regius Professor of Chronology, or “Reg” as he insisted on being called had a memory that he himself had once compared to the Queen Alexandra Birdwing Butterfly, in that it was colourful, flitted prettily hither and thither, and was now, alas, almost completely extinct.

  When he had telephoned with the invitation a few days previously, he had seemed extremely keen to see his former pupil, and yet when Richard had arrived this evening, a little on the late side, admittedly, the Professor had thrown open the door apparently in anger, had started in surprise on seeing Richard, demanded to know if he was having emotional problems, reacted in annoyance to being reminded gently that it was now ten years since he had been Richard's college tutor, and finally agreed that Richard had indeed come for dinner, whereupon he, the Professor, had started talking rapidly and at length about the history of the college architecture, a sure sign that his mind was elsewhere entirely.

  Reg had never actually taught Richard, he had only been his college tutor, which meant in short that he had had charge of his general welfare, told him when the exams were and not to take drugs, and so on. Indeed, it was not entirely clear if Reg had ever taught anybody at all and what, if anything, he would have taught them. His professorship was an obscure one, to say the least, and since he dispensed with his lecturing duties by the simple and time-honoured technique of presenting all his potential students with an exhaustive list of books that he knew for a fact had been out of print for thirty years, then flying into a tantrum if they failed to find them, no one had ever discovered the precise nature of his academic discipline. He had, of course, long ago taken the precaution of removing the only extant copies of the books on his reading list from the university and college libraries, as a result of which he had plenty of time to, well, to do whatever it was he did.

  Since Richard had always managed to get on reasonably well with the old fruitcake, he had one day plucked up courage to ask him what, exactly, the Regius Professorship of Chronology was. It had been one of those light summery days when the world seems about to burst with pleasure at simply being itself, and Reg had been in an uncharacteristically forthcoming mood as they had walked over the bridge where the River Cam divided the older parts of the college from the newer.

  “Sinecure, my dear fellow, an absolute sinecure,” he had beamed. “A small amount of money for a very small, or shall we say non-existent, amount of work. That puts me permanently just ahead of the game, which is a comfortable if frugal place to spend your life. I recommend it.” He leaned over the edge of the bridge and started to point out a particular brick that he found interesting.

  “But what sort of study is it supposed to be?” Richard had pursued. “Is it history? Physics? Philosophy? What?”

  “Well,” said Reg, slowly, “since you're interested, the chair was originally instituted by King George III, who, as you know, entertained a number of amusing notions, including the belief that one of the trees in Windsor Great Park was in fact Frederick the Great.

  “It was his own appointment, hence ‘Regius’. His own idea as well, which is somewhat more unusual.”

  Sunlight played along the River Cam. People in punts happily shouted at each other to fuck off. Thin natural scientists who had spent months locked away in their rooms growing white and fishlike, emerged blinking into the light. Couples walking along the bank got so excited about the general wonderfulness of it all that they had to pop inside for an hour.

  “The poor beleaguered fellow,” Reg continued, “George III, I mean, was, as you may know, obsessed with time. Filled the palace with clocks. Wound them incessantly. Sometimes would get up in the middle of the night and prowl round the palace in his nightshirt winding clocks. He was very concerned that time continued to go forward, you see. So many terrible things had occurred in his life that he was terrified that any of them might happen again if time were ever allowed to slip backwards even for a moment. A very understandable fear, especially if you're barking mad, as I'm afraid to say, with the very greatest sympathy for the poor fellow, he undoubtedly was. He appointed me, or rather I should say, my office, this professorship, you understand, the post that I am now privileged to hold to — where was I? Oh yes. He instituted this, er, Chair of Chronology to see if there was any particular reason why one thing happened after another and if there was any way of stopping it. Since the answers to the three questions were, I knew immediately, yes, no, and maybe, I realised I could then take the rest of my career off.”

  “And your predecessors?”

  “Er, were much of the same mind.”

  “But who were they?”

  “Who were they? Well, splendid fellows of course, splendid to a man. Remind me to tell you about them some day. See that brick? Wordsworth was once sick on that brick. Great man.”

  All that had been about ten years ago.

  Richard glanced around the great dining hall to see what had changed in the time, and the answer was, of course, absolutely nothing. In the dark heights, dimly seen by the flickering candlelight, were the ghostly portraits of prime ministers, archbishops, political reformers and poets, any of whom might, in their day, have been sick on that same brick.

  “Well,” said Reg, in a loudly confidential whisper, as if introducing the subject of nipple-piercing in a nunnery, “I hear you've suddenly done very well for yourself, at last, hmmm?”

  “Er, well, yes, in fact,” said Richard, who was as surprised at the fact as anybody else, “yes, I have.”

  Around the table several gazes stiffened on him.

  “Computers,” he heard somebody whisper dismissively to a neighbour further down the table. The stiff gazes relaxed again, and turned away.

  “Excellent,” said Reg. “I'm so pleased for you, so pleased.”

  “Tell me,” he went on, and it was a moment before Richard realised that the Professor wasn't talking to him any more, but had turned to the right to address his other neighbour, “what's all this about, this,” he flourished a vague hand over the candles and college silver, “…stuff?”

  His neighbour, an elderly wizened figure, turned very slowly and looked at him as if he was rather annoyed at being raised from the dead like this.

  “Coleridge,” he said in a thin rasp, “it's the Coleridge Dinner you old fool.” He turned very slowly back until he was facing the front again. His name was Cawley, he was a Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology, and it was frequently said of him, behind his back, that he regarded it not so much as a serious academic study, more as a chance to relive his childhood.

  “Ah, is it,” murmured Reg, “is it?” and turned back to Richard. “It's the Coleridge Dinner,” he said knowledgeably. “Coleridge was a member of the college, you know,” he added after a moment. “Coleridge. Samuel Taylor. Poet. I expect you've heard of him. This is his Dinner. Well, not literally, of course. It would be cold by now.” Silence. “Here, have some salt.”

  “Er, thank you, I think I'll wait,” said Richard, surprised. There was no food on the table y

  “Go on, take it,” insisted the Professor, proffering him the heavy silver salt cellar.

  Richard blinked in bemusement but with an interior shrug he reached to take it. In the moment that he blinked, however, the salt cellar had completely vanished.

  He started back in surprise.

  “Good one, eh?” said Reg as he retrieved the missing cruet from behind the ear of his deathly right-hand neighbour, provoking a surprisingly girlish giggle from somewhere else at the table. Reg smiled impishly. “Very irritating habit, I know. It's next on my list for giving up after smoking and leeches.”

  Well, that was another thing that hadn't changed. Some people pick their noses, others habitually beat up old ladies on the streets. Reg's vice was a harmless if peculiar one — an addiction to childish conjuring tricks. Richard remembered the first time he had been to see Reg with a problem — it was only the normal Angst that periodically takes undergraduates into its grip, particularly when they have essays to write, but it had seemed a dark and savage weight at the time. Reg had sat and listened to his outpourings with a deep frown of concentration, and when at last Richard had finished, he pondered seriously, stroked his chin a lot, and at last leaned forward and looked him in the eye.

  “I suspect that your problem,” he said, “is that you have too many paper clips up your nose.”

  Richard stared at him.

  “Allow me to demonstrate,” said Reg, and leaning across the desk he pulled from Richard's nose a chain of eleven paper clips and a small rubber swan.

  “Ah, the real culprit,” he said, holding up the swan. “They come in cereal packets, you know, and cause no end of trouble. Well, I'm glad we've had this little chat, my dear fellow. Please feel free to disturb me again if you have any more such problems.”

  Needless to say, Richard didn't.

  Richard glanced around the table to see if there was anybody else he recognised from his time at the college.

  Two places away to the left was the don who had been Richard's Director of Studies in English, who showed no signs of recognising him at all. This was hardly surprising since Richard had spent his three years here assiduously avoiding him, often to the extent of growing a beard and pretending to be someone else.

  Next to him was a man whom Richard had never managed to identify. Neither, in fact, had anyone else. He was thin and vole-like and had the most extraordinarily long bony nose — it really was very, very long and bony indeed. In fact it looked a lot like the controversial keel which had helped the Australians win the America's Cup in 1983, and this resemblance had been much remarked upon at the time, though not of course to his face. No one had said anything to his face at all.

  No one.


  Anyone meeting him for the first time was too startled and embarrassed by his nose to speak, and the second time was worse because of the first time, and so on. Years had gone by now, seventeen in all. In all that time he had been cocooned in silence. In hall it had long been the habit of the college servants to position a separate set of salt, pepper and mustard on either side of him, since no one could ask him to pass them, and to ask someone sitting on the other side of him was not only rude but completely impossible because of his nose being in the way.

  The other odd thing about him was a series of gestures he made and repeated regularly throughout every evening. They consisted of tapping each of the fingers of his left hand in order, and then one of the fingers of his right hand. He would then occasionally tap some other part of his body, a knuckle, an elbow or a knee. Whenever he was forced to stop this by the requirements of eating he would start blinking each of his eyes instead, and occasionally nodding. No one, of course, had ever dared to ask him why he did this, though all were consumed with curiosity.

  Richard couldn't see who was sitting beyond him.

  In the other direction, beyond Reg's deathly neighbour, was Watkin, the Classics Professor, a man of terrifying dryness and oddity. His heavy rimless glasses were almost solid cubes of glass within which his eyes appeared to lead independent existences like goldfish. His nose was straight enough and ordinary, but beneath it he wore the same beard as Clint Eastwood. His eyes gazed swimmingly around the table as he selected who was going to be spoken at tonight. He had thought that his prey might be one of the guests, the newly appointed Head of Radio Three, who was sitting opposite — but unfortunately he had already been ensnared by the Music Director of the college and a Professor of Philosophy. These two were busy explaining to the harassed man that the phrase “too much Mozart” was, given any reasonable definition of those three words, an inherently self-contradictory expression, and that any sentence which contained such a phrase would be thereby rendered meaningless and could not, consequently, be advanced as part of an argument in favour of any given programme-scheduling strategy. The poor man was already beginning to grip his cutlery too tightly. His eyes darted about desperately looking for rescue, and made the mistake of lighting on those of Watkin.

  “Good evening,” said Watkin with smiling charm, nodding in the most friendly way, and then letting his gaze settle glassily on to his bowl of newly arrived soup, from which position it would not allow itself to be moved. Yet. Let the bugger suffer a little. He wanted the rescue to be worth at least a good half dozen radio talk fees.

  Beyond Watkin, Richard suddenly discovered the source of the little girlish giggle that had greeted Reg's conjuring trick. Astonishingly enough it was a little girl. She was about eight years old with blonde hair and a glum look. She was sitting occasionally kicking pettishly at the table leg.

  “Who's that?” Richard asked Reg in surprise.

  “Who's what?” Reg asked Richard in surprise.

  Richard inclined a finger surreptitiously in her direction. “The girl,” he whispered, “the very, very little girl. Is it some new maths professor?”

  Reg peered round at her. “Do you know,” he said in astonishment, “I haven't the faintest idea. Never known anything like it. How extraordinary.”

  At that moment the problem was solved by the man from the BBC, who suddenly wrenched himself out of the logical half-nelson into which his neighbours had got him, and told the girl off for kicking the table. She stopped kicking the table, and instead kicked the air with redoubled vigour. He told her to try and enjoy herself, so she kicked him. This did something to bring a brief glimmer of pleasure into her glum evening, but it didn't last. Her father briefly shared with the table at large his feelings about baby-sitters who let people down, but nobody felt able to run with the topic.

  “A major season of Buxtehude,” resumed the Director of Music, “is of course clearly long overdue. I'm sure you'll be looking forward to remedying this situation at the first opportunity.”

  “Oh, er, yes,” replied the girl's father, spilling his soup, “er, that is… he's not the same one as Gluck, is he?“

  The little girl kicked the table leg again. When her father looked sternly at her, she put her head on one side and mouthed a question at him.

  “Not now,” he insisted at her as quietly as he could.

  “When, then?”

  “Later. Maybe. Later, we'll see.”

  She hunched grumpily back in her seat. “You always say later,” she mouthed at him.

  “Poor child,” murmured Reg. “There isn't a don at this table who doesn't behave exactly like that inside. Ah, thank you.” Their soup arrived, distracting his attention, and Richard's.

  “So tell me,” said Reg, after they had both had a couple of spoonsful and arrived independently at the same conclusion, that it was not a taste explosion, “what you've been up to, my dear chap. Something to do with computers, I understand, and also to do with music. I thought you read English when you were here — though only, I realise, in your spare time.” He looked at Richard significantly over the rim of his soup spoon. “Now wait,” he interrupted before Richard even had a chance to start, “don't I vaguely remember that you had some sort of computer when you
were here? When was it? 1977?”

  “Well, what we called a computer in 1977 was really a kind of electric abacus, but…”

  “Oh, now, don't underestimate the abacus,” said Reg. “In skilled hands it's a very sophisticated calculating device. Furthermore it requires no power, can be made with any materials you have to hand, and never goes bing in the middle of an important piece of work.”

  “So an electric one would be particularly pointless,” said Richard.

  “True enough,” conceded Reg.

  “There really wasn't a lot this machine could do that you couldn't do yourself in half the time with a lot less trouble,” said Richard, “but it was, on the other hand, very good at being a slow and dimwitted pupil.”

  Reg looked at him quizzically.

  “I had no idea they were supposed to be in short supply,” he said. “I could hit a dozen with a bread roll from where I'm sitting.”

  “I'm sure. But look at it this way. What really is the point of trying to teach anything to anybody?”

  This question seemed to provoke a murmur of sympathetic approval from up and down the table.

  Richard continued, “What I mean is that if you really want to understand something, the best way is to try and explain it to someone else. That forces you to sort it out in your own mind. And the more slow and dim-witted your pupil, the more you have to break things down into more and more simple ideas. And that's really the essence of programming. By the time you've sorted out a complicated idea into little steps that even a stupid machine can deal with, you've certainly learned something about it yourself. The teacher usually learns more than the pupil. Isn't that true?”

  “It would be hard to learn much less than my pupils,” came a low growl from somewhere on the table, “without undergoing a pre-frontal lobotomy.”

  “So I used to spend days struggling to write essays on this 16K machine that would have taken a couple of hours on a typewriter, but what was fascinating to me was the process of trying to explain to the machine what it was I wanted it to do. I virtually wrote my own word processor in BASIC. A simple search and replace routine would take about three hours.”