The Stress Plague – chapter 1

I’d had one a hell of a day at the University. The Dean, a grumpy old fart with a hair transplant & strangely orange skin had called me in for a ‘talk.’ His office stunk of peanuts, even though he didn’t eat them.

“Why is it, Donald, that every time there is a problem in my university, it can be somehow be traced to your faculty.”

“Perhaps it is because the literature students are passionate, sir.”
The dinosaur insisted on being called sir – a throwback to his army days ‘I was in Northern Ireland – bloody natives needed discipline, discipline, discipline. If we’d have given them discipline the Troubles would have ended a lot sooner than they did’ would be one of his typical outbursts. Today, however, was just that ice-cold stare you wanted to gouge out with a pick-axe.

“There is no need to be flippant, Donald. Just keep an eye on things. Cannabis smoking cannot be tolerated. It is a criminal offence.”

“You know I don’t smoke it anymore, sir.”
“Not you, your damn students. William Beauregard was found smoking on the campus grounds… again. One more time & he is out on his ears, expelled, you hear me Donald, expelled.”

I will have a word with him, sir.”
“Good… now would be an appropriate time.”
“Of course.”

As I got up to leave, he flew a few words into the room with a creepiness that always gave my arms little fields of goosebumps. “How is Mrs Claymore?” Now Mrs Claymore is my wife, a lovely, patient creature & the mother of my two children. At 35 years old she still retains the face & physique of a woman 10 years her younger, but being married to an English literature professor has aged her mentally by about 50 years.

“She is well.”
“Do give her my regards!”

What he really meant by those syrupy syllable was, ‘I’d like to fuck your wife.’ The old sleazebag. On leaving his office I made my way to campus for my obligatory chat with Will. He wasn’t one of my best students, academically, but he was an ex-curricular whirlwind, who brought a load of good ideas & energy onto the course, & some really good squidgy black from Liverpool. Gold Seal – the real deal. This is the kind of cannabis you don’t need to burn, rolling it up into thin, black lines you just drop into the rizla papers. As I told the Dean earlier that afternoon, these days it was extremely rare for me to roll up a joint, but I don’t mind having a wee toke, as I did upon offered me by Will as I sat down on the swing-a-chair in his room. He was sat on his bed, flicking through an old copy of WB Yeats.

“I love this guy, he’s fuckin’ brilliant,” he said in a thick Scouse accent. He never talked like that in the lecture hall, but the Everton flag pinned on the wall always seemed to pluck the Scouse out of him.

“Yeah, bit of a wild one was Yeats in his youth.”
“Listen to this shit, its cosmic. Turning and turning in the widening gyre  / The falcon cannot hear the falconer / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

“Yeah, great stuff Will.”

“So, I suppose you’ve heard I got caught by the groundsman smoking weed.”

“I have yes, that’s why I’m here, to reprimand you.”

“Jesus!”

“You really need to be more careful.”

“Yeah, yeah, boss, I’m on it.”

“Well do it – he’s on the warpath, the Dean, he says this is your last warning.”

There was a pause. I could hear Will thinking. He was destined for great things; he knew that, I knew that, but what they were only the gods knew. Maybe getting kicked off the course was part of that. He started skinning up. I started to speak.

“How much have you got, by the way, I’m seeing a pal later on, he’s a fan of your stuff?”

“Enough.”

“I’ll take a quarter, then, usual price?”

“It is.” As Will began to rummage about under his bed, I took in a bit more of his room. It reminded me of my own student days – a bit dirty, a bit smelly, books & coffee stains everywhere. I identified with the lad a lot. Like me, he had been born in a working class district & had to work a hell of a lot harder in order to get to degree-level. When it came to making a bit of extra money from selling smoke in order to subsidise his studies there was no way I could object. Especially when his shit was that good.

Will pulled out a pair of old football socks, in which he kept his cellaphane-wrapped lumps of smoke. He tossed one across to me, I caught it, & lay a £20 note at his desk.

“Cheers.”

“No problemo, boss!”

“Well, I’ll be off then. Think about what I’ve said, & I’ll see you in lectures on Friday.”

“Sure.” Will nonchalanty returned to skinning up his joint & I left his room. Back outside in the campus grounds, the late April sun sprinkling genuine warmth onto my skin. May was just round the corner, & with that the summer holidays & a chance to finally finish my book. Two years previously I’d sent the first three chapters to a publisher, who’d practically wet their pants in excitement about the prospect of a possible bestseller. It had all the ingredients, & my writing was, & I quote, ‘pulsatingly modern.’ Roll on 27 months & I still hadn’t finished it. Young kids & a heavy workload at the university had consumed my time & sucked all creativity out of me. My publisher was losing interest in the project, as, perhaps, was I.

————

“I think its time for a change of scenery, Benny.” The guy sat across from me in the pub was my friend, well more of a father figure, I guess. Twenty years older than my own 40 years, he lived like he was twenty & could party anyone anybody the table. A self-confessed member of the Lucky Bastards club, this immortal effervescence had won him a woman almost three decades years younger than him, called Stella. Her grandfather – Benny loved to tell anyone that would listen – had been a friend of the king! Their family had once owned a series of steel mills in the Motherwell area, & made an absolute fortune. Then they were bought out by Scottish Steel in the 1960s, an aggressive take over by all accounts, & so the family decided to buy farmland near Mugdock Country Park, to the north of Glasgow, & lead a much more pastoral existence. I’d been out there a couple of times visiting Benny & Stella, & last summer my whole family had even done a spot of holiday house-sitting while they were touring Venezuela. I’d also managed to get a couple of chapters of my book done out there.

“Well,” smirked Benny with that semi-toothless grin of his, “its funny you should say that. One of the cottages at Boxwheel has just come available.”
“Really?”

“Yeah . Gayle’s mother has taken a turn for worse, so she’s having to move to Inverness to be with her. She’s gave her months notice in yesterday.”

“Interesting…”

“Think of it, mate, we’d have a great life up there. You could get some writing done, its an easy drive into the university, the kids would love it. You’ve got first dibs, the inks still not dry on the months notice yet. It would save Stella’s family a whole heap of hassle if you just slip in through the back door, transfer the tenancy.

“It does sound enticing, that… I’ll speak to the wife tonight.”

“You know it makes sense pal. Anyway, who’s round is it?”

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