vinaigrous (adj.): vinegary; sour-tempered
Every Spring semester, at this time, they start to queue down the corridor of the English department. Dissertation students waiting for a final supervision, first-years looking for feedback on their essay. They stand outside every door, four or five deep, quietly chatting or checking their phones. Every door, that is, except for the one at the end by the fire exit. That’s Professor Fulton, and they know better than to go knocking there.
Even before I arrived at the University, I knew his reputation. He caught a second-year texting during a lecture, so he confiscated the phone and spent the rest of the hour reading out messages from the lad’s mother. At Faculty meetings, he introduced something called the ‘fist of boredom’. Simple concept, really; if he’s bored, he pounds his fist against the table until they move on to the next agenda item. For conferences, he always stands at the end of panels and says, ‘How are you wrong? Let me count the ways…’
All of that should make him a pariah – some of it is undoubtedly bullying and harassment – but he’s tolerated because he’s a titan in the field of Modernist Literature. He produces monographs faster than the rest of us can mark essays and he seems to bring in grants as readily as I stack up missed deadlines.
Which is why I need to – briefly – ignore the queue outside my office and go to knock on his door. Today is the last day for sabbatical applications, and I need his signature. In the time I spend hesitating in the hall, I know another dozen or so emails will have landed in my inbox and another two students have joined my line. One of them, Matt, catches my eye and asks if I’m alright. I try a smile and nod. I’m a doctor, for christ-sake, an expert in my own field, not some trembling undergrad.
Tucking my hair behind my ears, I raise my hand to the door.
‘I can hear you out there,’ Fulton calls. ‘Shit or get off the pot.’
I lower my hand and think about whether that’s an invitation to come in or not. I decide it is; it has to be if I want his signature on my application. So I turn the handle and enter.
He’s in an armchair off to the side, with a standard lamp behind. There’s a book propped open on his lap. From his computer comes the sound of soft jazz – Coltrane maybe – but the screen is black. He’s notorious for ignoring emails or replying to them with a paper memo through the internal mail.
‘Dr Jenkins,’ he says. ‘You decided to shit.’
I blink at him. It takes me a couple of moments to join the dots. You might expect him to smile – to show that it’s a joke – but he doesn’t. His shirt bulges open at the buttons to show his vest, his trousers ride high at the ankles to show his socks. Surprisingly, they have that cartoon Tasmanian Devil on them.
‘Could I have your signature, please?’ I hold out the application with one hand and smooth down my skirt with the other.
‘Everyone always wants something,’ he says, holding out his hand.
I could make a waspish response: that colleagues rarely ask anything of him; that students aren’t lined up outside his door; that it’s his job. Instead, I smile. He takes the application and starts to read it over.
This wasn’t expected. He was just meant sign it. I think of the Senior Lecturer who moved to America a year ago. Fulton had printed out a journal article of his and left sheets of it stacked in the cubicles in the Gents. Then he’d taken away the loo roll.
I try to think about something else, but that leaves me focusing on his ear-hair. There are great grey tufts of it. He could transplant it onto the thinning patch on top.
He looks up, I divert my eyes.
‘They’ve asked you to add all this bollocks about engaging with local schools?’
I try not to compare his raised eyebrow to his ear-hair – darker but just as wispy.
‘It’ll be good for the research,’ I say.
‘Horse shit. All you need is the archive and some time to fucking write.’
‘That’s what the sabbatical is for.’
‘Exactly, not this schools shite.’
‘What do you want me to say?’ I try to hold his gaze. ‘Yes, they made me put in the outreach stuff, but it’s not the worst thing to do.’
‘Slippery slope,’ he says, but he reaches into his shirt pocket for a pen and clicks it open to sign the application.
‘Thank you,’ I say, taking it. He holds on; tight enough that I think the paper might rip. Maybe he wants me to hand in a sellotaped sabbatical form. It’s not the worst thing he’s ever done.
‘This is for the Autumn semester?’ he asks.
‘Word of advice, then,’ he lets go of the sheet and leans back. I think of all the ‘advice’ he’s given others in the past – telling doctoral students to go back to shelf-stacking, interrupting a poetry reading to invite the poet to exhume the graves of Yeats and Shelley so that she might see them twisting and turning at the sound of her verse.
‘Of course,’ I say, holding the signed application to my chest.
‘I’ll be retired when you come back from sabbatical, you see…’
‘Oh, that’s a great sh – ’
He waves this away. ‘I know I’m despised, Dr Jenkins.’
‘No, despised is – no.’
‘Listen, though,’ he peers at me. ‘That’s the way I want it. That’s the way it needs to be. You build yourself a reputation as unapproachable, as a bit of a dinosaur, and everyone stays the fuck away.’
He reaches over to his desk and lifts a pair of spectacles. They have a glob of glue on one of the legs. I realise it’s the first time I’ve seen them since four months ago, when he stood up in the middle of a Research Office powerpoint presentation, took them off, snapped them, and walked out.
‘We get asked to do so much,’ he says. ‘They treat academics like fucking vending machines. So all I’m saying is, leave their packet of crisps hanging once in a while, make them think their hand’s going to get stuck.’
I don’t critique his metaphor. If a student gave me it in an essay then it would have a red line through it and a question mark in the margin. All the same, there’s something to what he’s saying: if I didn’t have a line of students outside my door then I could prepare for my afternoon seminar; if I hadn’t had those research outreach meetings then my sabbatical application wouldn’t have been written in the wee hours of the morning.
‘Just that word of advice,’ he says and then he gives me a slow wink. It takes so long that I wonder if he’s having a stroke. ‘It would be a shame to see a girl as lovely as you turn as haggard and bitter as the rest.’
I feel my shoulders lift with something like relief. Just for a second, I’d thought he was right, thought he was decent.
‘Professor Fulton,’ I say. ‘I’ve always found that if it walks like a dinosaur and roars like a dinosaur then it’s probably a fucking dinosaur. And, if in doubt, you can tell by the stench of its breath.’
I’m shaking a little, but I still have a firm grasp of my signed sabbatical application.
He unfolds his gluey spectacles and slides them onto his nose. ‘Better,’ he says.
‘Happy retirement,’ I say, as I open the door. Then, as I close it behind me, ‘You odious little wanker.’