Northwords Now

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by David McVey

The Scottish Literature Department at the University of Cumbernauld had occupied a temporary, two-storey building for nearly twenty years. Long after six o’ clock, with darkness enfolding the campus, Malcolm Kennedy worked on; he had marking to do, a conference to organise, oh, and that paper on Burns to finish. He was alone on the first floor of a portakabin.

A sound came from behind him. He turned and saw a burst of light clearing to reveal two men; one tall, athletic and black, the other older, white and craggy. Both work black suits, black ties and dark sunglasses.

‘Droothy neebors, neebors meet,’ said the older one.

‘How did you get in here?’ said Kennedy. The outer door should have been locked.

‘Professor Kennedy?’ said the younger man.

‘Let’s just call him “Mr Kennedy”,’ said the older one. ‘The rank is but the guinea stamp. A man’s a man for aa that.’

‘I said - who are you?’ repeated Kennedy.

‘We’re MoB,’ said the younger man.

‘Men of Burns,’ said the older one.

‘You’re writing a paper about Burns,’ said the younger man.

‘How did you know that?’ said Kennedy. He’d been trying to keep it quiet. He knew the reputation of specialist Burns scholars.

‘It’s our business to know,’ said the older man.

‘People sometimes write stuff about Burns we don’t like,’ said the younger man.

‘Bad stuff,’ said the older one, ‘and stuff that’s different from the stuff everyone knows and loves about Burns.’

‘What’s that got to do with me?’ said Kennedy.

‘You happy in your work, Mr Kennedy?’ asked the younger man.

‘Enjoy working here?’ said the older one.

‘What? Yes, I suppose I do…’

‘Hear that?’ said the younger Man of Burns. ‘He enjoys his work.’

‘Yeah, but Mr Kennedy,’ the older man interrupted, ‘pleasures are like poppies spread.’

‘You seize the flower,’ continued the younger man, ‘its bloom is shed. Or like the snowfall in the river…’

‘A moment white,’ concluded the older man, ‘then lost forever.’

‘You be careful with that paper,’ said the younger man.

‘We’ll know what’s in it,’ said the older one.

‘So, don’t make us mad.’ The younger man produced a small device, like a mobile phone, pressed a button, summoning a brief blaze of colour and blinding light that lingered for several seconds.

And then, in an instant, all was dark. The two men had gone.

Kennedy sat on in the faint gleam of his desktop lamp. He felt, you might say, cowering and timorous. He reread the opening paragraphs of his Burns paper. He decided to scrap it and write one about Sir Walter Scott instead. No one cared what you said about him.

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