Professor McAusland sat hunched over his desk, academic gown draped loosely over his shoulder, surveying his tutorial group. A dark, jowly monolith of a man with a disconcerting habit of picking his nails, his gloomy authority filled the small study in University Gardens. Joie de vivre was not his forte. A language, rather than literature scholar, he had the ability to kill stone dead any insidious hint of enthusiasm or enjoyment among his students. Outside, the rain fell steadily from a bleak November sky.
Rhona sat in cowed silence. A bright, lively girl rendered mute by the professor’s baleful presence, she knew it was her turn to receive THE BOOK. An obscure history of the early nineteenth century German novella, it came from the professor’s personal collection and was entrusted each week to the unfortunate student who was to prepare the following week’s tutorial paper. A laboured sermon, stressing the book’s rarity and value, was always delivered before the shabby-looking, frayed volume was handed over. Rhona wondered if the professor was a wee free. He was certainly miserable enough.
Leaving the Modern Languages building, Rhona stepped out into the rain. Unable to put the book in her bag, where a wet umbrella had dripped over the entire contents, she wedged it into the waistband of her jeans and set off for Partick station. Picking her way gingerly through the dark back streets, she zigzagged down to Dumbarton Road, the book safe and dry under her duffel coat.
Once settled in the 12.20 to Balloch, Rhona retrieved the book, placed it carefully in the rack and pondered on the miserable week to come. The tutorial paper would dominate her thoughts and every time she turned a page in the bloody book she would worry that it would fall to pieces. There was, certainly, the Modern Languages student party on Saturday night, normally something to look forward to, but McAusland had decreed that beer was the drink of the working classes and would not be served; Rhona feared that many of the more fanciable males would stay away.
Thoroughly fed up by the time she reached Dumbarton East, Rhona stepped out of the front carriage and unfurled her umbrella. The “blue train”, as Rhona’s granny insisted on calling it, was just drawing out of the station when the awful truth dawned. THE BOOK! The professor’s book, still in the rack, was slowly heading round the bend, up the Leven valley to Balloch, unaccompanied by any German-speaking caretaker.
Rhona stood on the platform, rigid with horror. A few minutes later she ran, panic-stricken, to the ticket office.
“What’s up, hen?” – Stevie Donnachie, the kindly station clerk, liked Rhona. A friend of her father, he always refused payment when she forgot her ticket, advising her to buy chips with the money instead. After listening to Rhona’s gulped story, Stevie sprang into action, phoning big Davie at Balloch station to advise him of the book’s imminent arrival.
A tense ten minutes followed until the news came through. The book had arrived safely in Balloch and Rhona should wait for the train’s return journey to retrieve the errant volume.
Too wound up to accept Stevie’s offer of a cup of tea, Rhona, cursing her own absent-mindedness, paced up and down the rain-lashed platform, waiting for the train’s return. At long last it arrived and she jumped expectantly into the front carriage. NO BOOK! Horrified, she sank into a seat as the train moved off, heading back to Glasgow. What had happened? Where was the damn book? As the train sped along the flooded plains of the Clyde estuary, enlightenment suddenly dawned. The train hadn’t turned round in Balloch. The book was in the LAST carriage.
As the train pulled into Bowling harbour Rhona jumped out and raced, panting, along the platform, heading for the rear of the train. Too late, only two carriages along, she had to jump back on, terrified of being left behind. A similar sprint against the driving rain in Old Kilpatrick brought her two-thirds of the way along the train. Would this never end?
Just before Dalmuir, the train ground to a halt. Signals. Trying to distract herself, Rhona looked around the carriage. The only other passengers were two teenage boys, clearly enjoying an away-day from school. An announcement played on a loop.
“We will shortly be arriving at Dalmuir. Passengers should take care when alighting from the train”.
“What’s fucking “alighting”?
Incomprehension established, the boys sprawled laconically over the seats, discussing where they might spend the rest of the day. Rhona watched them, wishing she possessed just one iota of their carefree contempt for authority.
Finally the train juddered into life and creaked its way into Dalmuir station. Alighting like a bullet, Rhona made a final dash along the slippery platform and stumbled into the last carriage. IT WAS THERE. The professor’s book lay safely in the rack. Drenched, now, with relief, she sat in a happy trance till the train reached Clydebank where, clutching the book, Rhona set off westwards again.
Professor McAusland directed a lugubrious stare at Rhona as she read out her tutorial paper the following week. In the normal run of things she would have awaited his verdict with trepidation. As she handed over the fraying book, however, Rhona realised that things had changed. The previous week’s misadventure had constituted the most memorable experience of her year with Professor McAusland. The book, she thought, probably felt the same.
As the professor launched into the usual palaver of the book-sermon, Rhona gazed with something approaching affection at the faded volume. She felt proprietorial – it had become HER book. She wished it well.