The note was waiting for him in his pigeonhole when he returned to college. He recognized the handwriting immediately. It was the same barely legible scrawl that adorned his weekly essays. The note read:
Dear Mr. Strickland,
Apologies for making this demand upon your busy schedule, but there is a matter I should like to discuss with you regarding your thesis.
Shall we say 5 p.m. today in my office at the faculty? (Thats the large stone building at the end of Trumpington Street, in case youve forgotten.)
Adam glanced at his watch. Fifteen minutes to get across town. The bath would
have to wait.
Professor Crispin Leonard was something of an institution, not just within the faculty but the university as a whole. Although well into his seventies, he was quite unlike his elderly peers, who only emerged from their gloomy college rooms at mealtimes, or so it seemed, shuffling in their threadbare gowns to and from the dining hall, across velvet lawns whose sacred turf it was their privilege to tread. Few knew what these aged characters did (or had ever done) to justify the sinecure of a college fellowship. Authorship of a book, one book, any book, appeared to suffice, even if the value of that work had long since been eclipsed. For whatever reason, they were deemed to have paid their dues, and in return the colleges offered them a comfortable dotage unencumbered by responsibilities.
Professor Leonard was cut from a far tougher cloth. He lectured and supervised in three subjects, he continued to offer his services as a college tutor, and he remained involved in a number of societies, some of which he had also founded. And all this while still finding time not only to write but to be published. By any standards it was a remarkable workload, and one he appeared to shoulder quite effortlessly.
How did he manage it? He never hurried and was never late; he just loped about like a well-fed cat, giving off an air of slight distraction, as if his mind was always on higher things.
He was deep in slumber when Adam entered his office. The first knock didnt rouse him, and when Adam poked his head around the door and saw him slumped in an armchair, a book on his lap, he knocked again, louder this time.
Professor Leonard stirred, taking his bearings, taking in Adam. Im sorry, I must have nodded off. He closed the book and laid it aside. Adam noted that it was one of the professors own works, on the sculpture of Mantegna.
No court in the land would convict you.
Professor Leonard invited irreverence, he actively encouraged it, but for a moment Adam feared he had overstepped the mark.
That might be funnier, Mr. Strickland, if youd ever bothered to read my book on Mantegna. Which reminds mehow is your serve?
Well, the last time I saw you, you were cycling down Kings Parade in something of a hurry. You were gripping two tennis rackets, and the young lady riding sidesaddle was gripping you.
Has it improved?
Your serve, Mr. Strickland. We would all feel so much happier if you at least had something else to show for your absence.
I work hard, bleated Adam, I work late.
Professor Leonard reached for some papers stacked on the side table next to his chair. Since youre here you might as well take this now. He flipped through the pile and pulled out Adams essay. I probably marked you lower than I should have done.
Oh, said Adam, a little put out.
Thinking about it, you might have had more of a point than I credited you with at first.
Excerpted from The Savage Garden by Mark Mills, © 2007 by Mark Mills. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Group USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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