Short Story #13: Shame

The office was small and cluttered, with filing cabinets topped with folders and papers lining both walls. At the far end of one row stood a sorry looking plant. Every long, thin leaf but one was brown and wilting. Professor Akshan sat behind a large wooden desk, reading by a banker’s desk lamp, and behind the Professor’s chair was a grubby second floor window that let in a dirty orange light from a street lamp below. 

The Professor had a shock of long white hair and was wearing a dark brown tweed jacket. He was absorbed in reading a loosely stapled document when Jamie entered.

As he approached the Professor’s desk, Jamie noticed a human skull sitting on a large silver platter. The clutter of the Professor’s professional life had built up around it, framing it and drawing the young man’s attention to it. It had a yellowish tinge and two teeth were missing from its grin but other than that it was intact, staring emptily at him.

“Nice skull,” said Jamie, glancing up.

“Isn’t it?” Said Professor Akshan, lowering the paper and leaning forward in his worn chair. He tilted his head forward to look at it over the top of his wire-framed glasses. “It was a gift by a dear friend of mine. My mentor, one might say. Please, sit.”

“Is it real?” Asked Jamie. He sat on the edge of the chair and leaned in for a closer look.

“Oh yes. Some poor chap from the 1950s, I believe. Wrote a dramatic autobiography of every sinful act he’d committed and then hung himself.”

Jamie looked up at this but the Professor had returned to the document.

“So I suppose you’re wondering why I invited you in?” Asked the Professor, still reading. His voice was slow and deliberate.

“I suspect it’s to do with my last paper,” said Jamie, still intrigued by the skull.

“Quite. You seem to have taken to this research very well. However, I do have some concerns about your methodology,” he indicated the paper he was holding. “Specifically, the homogenous nature of your sample groups and some of the questions you’re asking them. You do remember your ethical training, don’t you?”

“I do.”

“Some of these questions are a little…inappropriate, don’t you think?”

“With all due respect, I think they’re relevant.”

“Here’s one: ‘Do you believe you should feel embarrassment about your behaviour in this experiment?’”

“I’m just trying to get an idea of how the participants view themselves,” said Jamie. He stared into the large empty sockets, pitch black in the dimly lit office.

“My dear boy, this should be revealed behaviour. Such a direct question is subjective and of limited value. Wouldn’t it be better to design an experiment to show this to you without the subject’s knowledge? Consider revising some of these questions going forward. Now, what’s more concerning to me is this sample group.”

“I have to work with what I have available to me.”

Jamie thought he saw something inside the hollow skull. He leaned in for a closer look. After a moment, he became aware of the silence and looked up to see the Professor watching him carefully.

“Last time I checked,” said the Professor carefully, “we were a relatively diverse University. And yet your sample is made up entirely of caucasian males, aged 23-25.” 

The Professor picked up another paper from his desk. “Here’s your previous one: ‘Self esteem and the Iterative Prisoner’s Dilemma’, which again features young white males exclusively.”

“I can’t force people to sign up!”

“Quite. However, your peers seem to have no problem in obtaining groups that don’t consist of reflections of themselves.—” Jamie’s eyes dropped back down, meeting the holes of the empty sockets in front of him as the Professor continued.—“You are, of course, aware that the money for much of this research comes with conditions attached. As much as I abhor government interference in our academic lives it is, sadly, a fact of our continued existence as an institution and they have some say in how that money is spent. One of these conditions is that you need to ensure a diverse…”

The Professor’s voice faded as Jamie tilted his head this way and that, examine the construction of this skull. The nasal cavity, the joins on the cranium, the jaw bone that went back and up to connect with the cheek bone, forming that disconcerting toothy grin, smiling as if realising the ridiculousness of its own tragic countenance and its surroundings. 

He thought he saw a flash of light through one of the eye sockets. He shifted to try and see it again. The skull radiated a darkness as he searched, blacking out its surroundings, dominating his attention. 

He became aware of a ringing in his ears, a high pitched whine that grew in volume as he continued to search for that little speck of light he was certain was in there.

He heard a voice. Soft, breathy, whispering a single word. He leaned in closer still, trying to hear.

“Shame,” it said. “Shame.”

The word struck him hard, like a kick to the stomach, taking the wind out of him and knocking him back into his chair. 

“James?” The Professor’s quiet voice sounded watery and distant. He couldn’t focus on the man behind the desk. Was he smiling? Everything was a blur. 

A wave of nausea hit him. He clutched his abdomen and slid further down the chair. He closed his eyes and turned away from the skull. A stream of memories hit him like a hose and they flowed through his head in quick succession: he’s five years old, his trousers are wet and the whole class is laughing; he’s seven years old, running into a ditch to help the girl he pushed in there, crying out to her that it was a prank and he didn’t mean it; he’s fourteen, there’s a collection of stolen chocolate bars and magazines on the table, his father is shouting and his mother is behind him at the door, openly sobbing; he’s seventeen, awkwardly handing the girl a rose as her friends surround her, laughing at him, pushing him away. 

He’s twenty one. He’s back at the nursing home. He’s giving his grandfather the ATM card and a single twenty pound note.

He’s failing to mention the five others in his back pocket. 

“How long did that go on for?” His grandfather’s voice is echoey and distant and sounds nothing like he remembers…

Jamie opened his eyes. They sucked in light like a vacuum. He screamed and jumped out of his chair, sending it flying backwards behind him. He turned and slammed himself into the filing cabinets. He leaned hard against the cold metal, squeezing his palms into his eyes. 

There was a long silence, then: “James?”

The student let out a barrelling cry, and flung his arms along the top of the cabinets, sending the papers and folders streaming across the room. He grabbed the forlorn plant and hurled it over the Professor’s head. 

The Professor didn’t flinch. He sat calmly, looking vaguely amused, as fragments of pottery and old, dry soil rained down around him. He made a half-hearted gesture towards the fallen chair. “Please, James. Sit,” he said. 

Jaime stood and stared at him, breathing heavily. Then he noticed the skull. It sat, untouched, in menacing silence. 

He lunged for it. The Professor stood with a speed that his appearance belied, grabbed the young man’s wrists before he could reach it, and pinned his hands firmly to the desk. 

Jamie looked up at the Professor in shock. The old man leaned in carefully. His jacket was faded and worn. His white hair was dishevelled. His glasses were unfashionable and out of shape, and his breath smelled of stale coffee. His dark eyes, however, were sharp and calculating. 

“I can’t have you doing that, I’m afraid,” he said quietly. “However horrifying your nasty little secrets are to you, I assure you they are not nearly that special. They are quite safe with me—you are not the fish I’m trying to catch.”

The Professor flung Jamie’s hands away from the desk, sending him stumbling back a step, and slowly sat down. He swept some of the soil and debris from his desk, picked up the loosely stapled paper, and started reading.

“Diversify your subjects, James,” he said, tapping the paper. “And close the door behind you.”