Two men were sitting opposite one another in an otherwise empty railway carriage. The first was hidden behind a large newspaper while the second, a man of indeterminate age who went by the name of Smee, looked out at the landscape as the train made its way through the countryside. The carriage was warm, but the trees were bare, and ponds were freezing over. Ducks could be seen walking on water. I wonder if it will begin to snow, thought Smee. It certainly seems cold enough.
This moment of idle conjecture was brought to an end by a series of snorts from behind the newspaper, followed by a Ptchwwfffff. The paper was folded, to reveal an exasperated face. “Take a letter for me, Smee.”
Smee opened his computer. His fingers hovered over the keyboard, waiting for the words to flow.
After a little academic chin stroking, the Professor began. “To the editor of The Daily Telegraph of London: Sir, I find it quite extraordinary that you have allowed your newspaper to be used as a forum for the propagation of poppycock. Today you published an article by Justin Welby, the – quotes – Archbishop of Canterbury – close quotes – in which he discusses his – quotes – faith – close quotes. This is a man whose entire life revolves around his belief in fairy stories. If this piece had appeared on your world-renowned funnies page it would have been in some way understandable, but to treat it as serious comment defies common sense. You might as well have told your readers that there is a goblin with a purple face. With all best wishes, Richard Dawkins – brackets – Professor – exclamation mark – exclamation mark – exclamation mark – exclamation mark ...” The Professor thought for a while longer. “... exclamation mark. How many exclamation marks are we up to, Smee?”
Smee counted. “That would be five, Professor.”
“Hmmm ... Four would not be quite enough, and six excessive. I am resolute that five is the correct amount. Close brackets. The end. Put it in one of those email things of yours and send it off, would you?”
“Certainly, Professor,” said Smee. What a mind, he thought. What a brilliant mind.
The Professor closed his eyes and began to make having-a-nap sounds, and with each man occupied in his own way, neither noticed the first snow begin to fall. It was powdery, hardly snow at all, but before long the flakes were coming down large and thick, and there was no getting away from it.
Winter had arrived.
The train juddered to a stop, rousing the Professor. “What is the meaning of this?” he thundered. He blinked for a while, until the world came into focus and he deduced the root of the problem. “Ptchah. One little snow flurry and the country grinds to a halt.”
Smee pulled an expression that indicated agreement with the Professor’s comment.
“Remind me, Smee,” said the Professor, “where are we going?”
Smee checked his notes. “Upper Bottom, Professor, where you are due to give a talk at the village hall to the All Bottoms Women’s Institute on the subject of ‘Science and the non-existence of God’. It’s not until tomorrow afternoon, so I’m sure we’ll get there on time.” As Smee spoke, he wondered where this confidence had come from. Far from being one little flurry, the snow was now so thick that the landscape had all but vanished.
The public address system clicked into life, and a voice filled the carriage: “Dmmf a vmmph whmpf crumph a sthmph wpff tmphf mmpff hmpff.”
“Are we in Wales, Smee?”
“No, Professor, we are in the very heart of the English countryside.”
“Then why is the conductor speaking in Welsh? Proud language as it is, it hardly seems appropriate.”
“It wasn’t Welsh, Professor, it was just a rather fuzzy-sounding announcement.”
“Are you telling me that was supposed to be Her Majesty’s English?” he raged. “It was an inaudible disgrace. I shall be writing one of my letters about this. Could you understand a word of it?”
Smee had an uncommon talent for deciphering railway announcements. “Due to adverse weather conditions,” he said, “this service will terminate at Market Horten.”
“Market Horten? Phmph. I’ve never heard of it.”
Smee hadn’t either. He opened his computer, and was relieved to find a faint signal. “It’s a town a few miles down the line from where we are now. Population 6,000.”
“Is it close to where I am due to give my talk?”
Smee again referred to his computer, looking at a map of the cluster of villages that made up The Bottoms. “Market Horten is described as being ‘The Gateway to The Bottoms’, but I’m afraid it’s still some way away. Lower Bottom is the nearest of The Bottoms, and that’s around three miles from town. Then you have East Bottom and West Bottom, with Middle Bottom in between, then comes Inner Bottom, followed by Great Bottom, and our destination is a full 11 miles from Market Horton. It’s looking rather unlikely that we shall be able to reach Upper Bottom tonight.”
“But we must reach Upper Bottom, by hook or by crook. That is a shepherd’s crook, you understand, not a bishop’s crook. I have women to speak to tomorrow afternoon, many of whom will be deluded churchgoers who urgently need to hear the truth about religion from somebody who has done all the experiments.”
“If the snow eases, the rail service might resume by the morning,” said Smee, at once hopeful and hopeless.
As they sat immobile, the snow showed no sign of easing. “Pfff ...” said the Professor, looking at his watch. “There goes Deal or No Deal.”
At last the train lurched back to life and started to move slowly towards what would now be its final stop. Smee went back online to find out what he could about their temporary home. He made a telephone call, and before the train had reached the station he had arranged for them to be met there by a taxi driver called Dave, who would help them find accommodation.
The Professor took this news with interest. “Imagine me, Professor Richard Dawkins, consorting with a taxi driver named Dave. Remember this, Smee, and if anybody puts it to you that I keep only elite company, and that I am out of touch with the common man, you be sure to tell them about the time we spent with Dave the taxi driver from... where are we again?”
From ‘When the Professor got Stuck in the Snow’, by Dan Rhodes, is published by Miyuki Books. Available from danrhodes.co.uk, as well as Foyles, Blackwells, and other good bookshops
About the author
Dan Rhodes grew up in Devon and was included in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists list in 2003. "When the Professor..." is his sixth novel. In 2010, he won the E M Forster Award
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