Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, written by University of Calgary professor Suzette Mayr and published last spring by Coach House Books, is a novel not easily categorized. On the one hand, it’s a satirical look at academic life, work and space – a campus novel in the vein of Robertson Davies’ Rebel Angels – in the age of the “corporate university.” On the other, it’s a horror story, with the decaying Crawley Hall, the liberal arts building at the fictional University of Inivea, standing in for the malevolent house of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
In this excerpt, it is the beginning of the first day of the fall semester for Edith Vane, an English professor at the University of Inivea. After back-to-school shopping and chatting with her employee assistance program- provided tele-therapist, Dr. Vane is optimistic – this will be the year she keeps her resolutions to exercise, to refine her image, to finally publish that book! Within minutes of being back on campus, however, Crawley Hall, and the jackrabbits that mysteriously overrun the building, test Dr. Vane’s resolve.
The first day of the school semester. Edith shoots out of bed. Seven fifteen a.m. Late. She tosses on the beautiful new blouse hanging off the door, the regal cardigan. She slides the Hangaku marvels on her feet. She smiles idiotically as her car wrestles traffic. First day of school! First day of the fresh-baked new year, fragrant, toasty, and just pulled out of the dog-daysof-summer oven. New students, new fixtures, new foundation.
She doesn’t have time to fight the morning elevator crowds to get to her office and drop off her coat, so she hoists herself up one floor in the stale air of the northern stairwell, panting and wheezing, stumbling in her new shoes. No matter, her feet look magnificent as they trip over the concrete edges. She skips muddy shoeprints along the polished floor straight to her classroom, a surprise autumn snow-rainfall this morning on the very first day of school and her new Hangakus slippery with muck. Her heels leave long black stripes. She rubs a chilly raindrop from her eyelash. She tugs papers and books out of her bag as she lumbers down the corridors that turn and undulate toward her classroom, her Canadian Literature Before 1950 class. New furnishments for her foundation!
The first thing she hears is the shouts.
Identical red doors line the hallway on each side of her as she winds down this labyrinth so early in the morning the moon’s still hanging in the sky. Her classroom is at the hallway’s end, the outside of her classroom door clustered with students still bundled in their coats and bags, some of them thumbing their mobile phones, some of them shouting and shrieking. She steps more quickly, then starts to canter in her baroque heels.
Someone’s shoved the desks up into a mountain beside the whiteboard, one boy on his stomach in his black puffy coat reaching his arm under the desks. The kicking and clatter of plastic chairs and tables; a mop handle someone found rattles among the metal legs.
A hare, surrounded in this spindly forest of metal and plastic, its ears greased back against its spine as it tries its hunched-low invisibility trick.
– Has someone called security? Edith asks, thumping her papers and books on the long plastic table in front of the room. – Stand any closer than that, she warns the boy lying on the floor, his arm stretching out toward the hare, – and you’ll likely catch rabies.
She yanks the security phone receiver from the wall and jabs the button. Her books and papers have slid to the floor, students’ mucky footprints crumpling the edges.
– Oh, please watch out for those papers, she says. – I need those papers, she says.
Students twisting and stamping on her papers, the edges tearing, the first page of her lecture notes ripping right down the muddy middle.
She hangs up the receiver.
She clambers down to the floor, trying not to get her coat dirty, her new scarf slithering in the grime. She guesses the janitorial staff hasn’t had a chance to polish this classroom floor yet. Stretches out on her stomach so she can spot the hare, huddled in the corner next to the radiator, its yellow eyes clenched shut, trapped in its shadowy cage of table legs.
– I think it’s dead, says the boy on the floor next to her. She remembers the boy from last year, Simon.
She peers more closely, the rabbit huddled next to the wall.
He is correct.
He is incorrect.
The jackrabbit abruptly rockets, streaks, and weaves through their legs, out the classroom door, students shrieking and stampeding.
Amidst the shrieks, the tangle and tumble of desks, the fears of rabies, Edith addresses her class.
– Good morning, class! she shouts, still panting a little from climbing that single flight of stairs.
In her office, Edith scrolls through the pounds and pounds of email accumulated inside her computer, each email a tiny loaded telegram reminding her of something she has to do, or something she hasn’t done, or something she never did, a pinched nerve in her right index finger burning ember-red all the way to her elbow as she dully clicks her mouse, chasing after all the telegrams. Alice Z., the front office manager, warns that the drain in the staff room isn’t working and that all the water in Crawley Hall will be shut off from Saturday, September 29, to Sunday, September 30.
A toilet across the hall flushes. Edith needs to pee. There’s no time to pee. When she finally remembers to pee, it will probably be September 29.
Alice Q. in the front office has written that the lock on the back stairwell door is jammed, a locksmith’s been called. Also all the photocopiers are broken but a technician’s been called.
Sometimes Edith pees on the fifth floor even though her office is on the fourth floor. Edith’s office, room c454, faces the fourth-floor bathroom. Between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. the toilet flushes and gurgles while she prepares for lectures, while she’s trying to read an article she’s printed off, while a student complains about the price of the textbooks across from her at her fake wood desk, while she argues on the phone with Alice Z. or Alice Q. or with Suneeta in Human Resources about yet another office supply reimbursement that hasn’t come through, while Edith blows her nose, crying for no good reason at all, something she attributes to perimenopausal hormones. A cough, a flush, the grunting of the paper-towel dispenser as it wheels out rough brown sheets echo and resound in her office. Edith will squeeze her thighs and Kegel muscles tight, then plod up the vertiginous east staircase to try and urinate in the much-less-trafficked fifth floor washroom. Or just to sit by herself momentarily in silent contemplation in a bathroom cubicle, the only space where it is culturally
unacceptable for someone to bother her. But the stairwell is only for emergencies and escapes, the stale air unbearable, a boiled-egg smell, even more so between the fourth and fifth floors. And the jolt of tromping up and down so many stairs inflames the soft tissue behind Edith’s kneecaps, and the flickering fluorescents hanging from the stairwell ceilings give her eyespots. She tries to savour her toilet breaks, her silent alone breaks, regretfully heaving up from the toilet seat when she knows she’s sat too long, flushing the toilet noisily whether she’s used it or not, as she wipes the mucus from her nose, the tears slinking from her eyes. Bolting out of the bathroom before the person in the adjoining cubicle lets out her dainty farts and urine trickles.
An email from a student saying none of the books Edith ordered for the class are in the bookstore.
An email from the dean’s assistant: All faculty and graduate students are invited to a reception tomorrow welcoming the new Leung Endowed Chair. Mona A. Leung and representatives of the Leung Foundation, Novacrest Oil Sands, and Sandersams Supermarkets will also be present.
Edith’s office also sits kitty-corner to the faculty lounge: a chair and expired-coffee-machine graveyard, a small mouldy fridge with a grinding engine. A round table stacked with decades-old literary journals. Ketchup smears and cookie crumbs from the weird cookies Angus Fella’s sister sends him from Adelaide. Sometimes the microwave beeps, potent and radiated odours like plastic Beefaroni containers bubbling over. Once upon a time she had an office with sealed windows (not) opening onto a view of the white crackled mountains rimming the western edges of Inivea, a sky as blue and wide as a mouth, the only sounds the occasional footsteps of a colleague or disoriented student in the corridor. Her boxes of books and papers she still hasn’t unpacked since she was relocated to this office a year and a half ago from her former, beautiful office, her teaching and meeting schedules always squeezed full, posters she needs to stick to the walls still curled in their cardboard tubes because she just had no time.
But she was decanted under the direction of the Building Resources sub-department; she had to move all her boxes and herself out of her office, which is what decanting really means, room b409, over a year ago because the bubbling brown stain on the white ceiling panels right above her desk one day matured and popped like a lanced blister, showering her head and her student papers and zigzag stacks of library books with chalky hunks and chunks of disintegrating ceiling tiles, grey scraps of fibreglass pink, little black marbles of who-knows-what. She tried to peer up into the cloudy maw of the ceiling, poked a swinging ceiling panel with her finger, but had to stop because the air and dust billowing out of the hole burned her eyes. Just a blur of shadow and dust. In the washroom mirror, her skin powdered in white disintegrated ceiling, her eyes bright red as her father’s every New Year’s Day. The dust mixing into a stubborn paste on her palms and beneath her fingernails under the tap, the brown paper towels she wetted pilling on her face as she tried to scrub the ceiling off her cheeks. Ceiling matted into her hair. Crusting onto her scalp.
Her old office, room b409, was for a long time a restricted construction zone mazed with ladders and women and men in construction hats, the ceiling split open and exposing its silver intestines, the floor peeledand raw. Once she was sure she saw a pair of workers dressed entirely in white, wearing white hoods and see-through plastic masks, white booties swaddling their feet. But she’d been Xeroxing a lot that afternoon – the photocopy light made her brain brittle and her senses unreliable.
She stacked her ceiling-caked boxes of books and files against the walls in what she thought would be only her temporary office, room c454. A narrow and dank little cubby no professor or even graduate student had occupied in years, not since she’d started working there.
Edith does not know who was in c454 before the years it was outright abandoned. All she knows is when she opened the door with the key, she was washed over with the smell of metal bookshelves, of hidden dust, the harshness of old sweat. The desk drawers empty except for an old fortune-cookie fortune curled in the very bottom drawer: If you don’t burn out at the end of each day, you’re a bum.
The window in c454 faces out onto the parking lot, the dilapidated ribbon of highway. Two of the fluorescent lights in the ceiling are completely out. She pushed the other boxes into corners. Oh, how she planned to layer and layer the walls of b409 with pictures when she returned – posters of book covers, postcards of her favourite authors – finally unpack all her boxes properly and fill those bookshelves to brimming. Maybe even buy a plant for the window. A philodendron or a hanging ivy. A small cactus with a merry pincushion top; they sometimes lasted up to 10 months in her old office before they browned and withered away.
She never moved back into room b409. Malcolm in Facility Resources wrote her that Dr. Lesley Hughes would need an office when she arrived, and the Endowed Chair office was under construction as part of the new Sandersams Supermarkets School of Business building project, so they couldn’t install her anywhere else. Dr. Hughes had also pointed out with fortunate foresight that the university president and the donor would not be too happy to see Dr. Hughes in an office just like every other professor’s. Edith peeped into her old office shortly before Lesley moved in. Built-in, dark wood bookshelves lined one wall, and the remaining walls were each painted a different shade of mauve.
Edith remembers Lesley posed triumphantly in the doorway of her luxurious house on the south bank of the Edmonton River Valley back when Edith was still technically her student, back when Lesley could say I own you to Edith, and Edith would nod yes. One of Lesley’s artsy-fartsy chandeliers, a bouquet of broken bottles crafted by a Venetian glass artisan, suspended above her head, its twin in the dining room, her marcelled and lacquered gold hair burning with the setting sun sticking its tongue out in the window behind her, her lips reciting familiar horror stories: that Edith’s dissertation was an inferior piece of work not worthy of a first-year university student, that it had no chance of ever being published, only a desperate Canadian hack press would publish it. You should drop out, she scrawled in the margins of Edith’s dissertation drafts. The book would be published only if the publisher were paid. Astronomical amounts of money. Six trillion dollars wouldn’t even begin to cover it. That Edith was harebrained and difficult, that Edith drove her, Lesley, to drink, and where was Edith’s gratitude?
– All the things I’ve done for you, Edith, blared Lesley. – You have no idea how many bottles of antidepressants and wake-up pills and sedatives I’ve had to choke down to get through the tangled mess of paper you call your dissertation. Sometimes I take the pills all at once! Chased with a bottle of cheap whisky! Sometimes I lie in bed, weeping at the hopelessness. Your research questions are Byzantine. You, Edith, have nothing to say.
Lesley’s past devotion to Edith had deflated like a lung poked with a pencil, suddenly and irrevocably. And all in the final year of her degree, just when Edith was on the verge of becoming a PhD, just when Edith made her major discovery about Beulah’s past as a Vancouver sporting girl who dabbled in the fledgling movement for Black railway workers’ rights. A badass. For years and years Edith was Lesley’s cute and exotic-looking PhD student, her shy queer brown pet, and then when Edith was about to become a Doctor just like Lesley, when Beulah Crump-Withers suddenly became complex and interesting, Lesley curdled.
Edith had had to meet with the graduate coordinator in his office, sit with a Students’ Union mediator, the university ombudsperson, to force Lesley to allow the dissertation to go through to defence, because in year eleven of Edith’s degree, Lesley had instructed Edith to start all over again. With a new topic. New everything. And because if Edith insisted on continuing to study the memoir of Beulah Crump-Withers, whose second marriage was to a Ukrainian man, then Edith should learn Ukrainian.
– Supervising you is like turning the Titanic, said Lesley.
It was during the Titanic harangue that Edith’s eyelid spasmed for the first time. Her eyelid jumped so hard it felt like Lesley had snapped an elastic band against her eyeball.
During the dissertation defence, at the long table of professors and Edith at the very end with her dissertation arranged in a neat, 583-page brick in front of her, Lesley typed on her laptop at the opposite end of the table, texted messages on her BlackBerry, then when it was her turn to ask Edith a question, asked sweetly, her s’s sibilant in that charming way Lesley always used in front of strangers or the press, – I know this is an unfair question, Edith dear, she asked, – but does your dissertation topic even exist? I was in contact with the head archivist at the National Archives, and she told me that a letter uncovered just last month in the Canadian Prairie section of the archives suggests that Beulah Crump-Withers was a pseudonym for an American, bootlegging, sleeping-car porter, a man, named Clarion Williams. This undermines the whole premise underlying your dissertation, doesn’t it? If what we always thought was the hundred-year-old memoir of a queerly articulate farm wife from Amber Valley,Alberta, was just a fantasy written by an American man from Chicago in the 1930s? If the truth of her identity was disclosed in a letter written by the mother of her alleged second husband? A letter written in Ukrainian?
One of the other examiners, a woman with lime-rimmed cat’s-eye glasses, choked, then gulped from her paper cup of water.
– This is what the most recent discovery is suggesting, offered Lesley to the room, her impossibly wide lips forming an impossibly small cherry-sized moue. – So what will you do if it turns out that Beulah Crump-Withers isn’t even real? I suppose this dissertation is, by extension, moot.
Lesley rose to standing then, her fingertips tented on the table, the tallest building of them all. But she was lying. Edith knew Lesley was lying because Lesley was biologically incapable of telling the truth. In radio interviews she crowed that she wrote fifty pages a day. To colleagues she whispered that she had persistent migraines and often had to go home to bed, the migraines so bad they forced her to go home and … post updates on Facebook about an upcoming symposium in Finland. Or Portugal.
Sweat dripped down the walls. Edith’s eyelid danced the Cucaracha.
The external examiner, scraggly grey hair squirting out from under the brim of his fedora, his voice traced with an accent that sounded English but not, suddenly guffawed and slapped his flaking old-man hands on the table.
– None of it’s real, Lesley! We’re literature professors! We dedicate our lives to paper dolls and, bully for us, we get paid for it. Give this poor girl a reasonable question. Or a real criticism, one that can’t be remedied with a simple footnote. Please.
Then he scrubbed his face with his hands as though he wanted to rub off his skin. He was wearing a watch with the Cheshire Cat on its face. Edith nearly puckered to kiss that watch face. Dr. Angus Fella. Lesley simultaneously tapped all ten fingers on the tabletop. Exactly once. The tap ricocheted, the final sound of something small and precious keeling over dead.
The examining committee chair at the foot of the table murmured that members of the examining committee should remember to speak in turn, address the PhD candidate and not each other, etc., and flipped hopelessly among his papers, his sentence trailing off into ellipses. The professor with the cat’s-eye glasses cleared her throat and began a question about Foucault’s heterotopia and what gardening while looking in a mirror might suggest about the memoir form.
Edith’s very own fedora-ed, paper-doll-playing, deus ex machina: Dr. Angus Fella. And when she was hired as his colleague in Crawley Hall, he didn’t remember Edith one little bit, even though he was responsible for throwing her the wooden plank that saved her life. He just strolls past her day after day, his hands in his pockets, his trousers ballooning overtop his wool socks and Birkenstock sandals, his fedora jammed on his head, his Cheshire Cat watch looping his wrist. The ancient professor with the billy-goat beard who crumbles Anzac cookies all over the lunchroom and who refuses to take the elevator in Crawley Hall, gasping his way up and down the staircase. Dr. Fella, who leaves the photocopying room suffused with eau de vodka or rum at 8:55 in the morning and who puts out a ‘revised’ edition of the same anthology every third year. Edith assumes Dr. Fella tipples rum – is tipple even a verb? – which is supposed to be scentless, but that’s a lie. When Edith drinks hard liquor, she also prefers rum. The jaunty labels featuring antique maps or fields of sugar cane, people with pooled brown eyes in hot places: Martinique, Island of Flowers; Cuba, origin of the Cuba Libre. She would like one day to share a glass of rum with Dr. Angus Fella and ask him more about the paper dolls that rule their lives.
Her left hip crackles as she stands up to go pee. She’s been sitting at her desk for four hours. She knocks her knee on a stack of books heaped by the door. Sits down again. She forgot to email her PhD student, Helen Bedford. Just one more email. Then she’ll pee. Edith ponders sending Coral an email to thank her for the e-card, welcome her back, ask her out for coffee? Dinner? See you at the next faculty meeting?
She pushes away from her desk and grabs her keys. She’ll try the fourth-floor bathrooms today because it’s the first day.
Published by permission of the author and Coach House Books. Suzette Mayr is an associate professor of creative writing and English at the University of Calgary. She has previously published four novels – Monoceros, Moon Honey, The Widows and Venous Hum – and contributed to several poetry and story collections. Dr. Mayr’s fiction has been recognized with a ReLit Award, among other prizes. Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall was shortlisted for the Georges Bugnet Award for Fiction at the Alberta Literary Awards (to be awarded June 2, after University Affairs went to press).