Professor Scudder's study was hot, dark, and crowded with memorabilia from his years in the tropics. Doctor Myron Handley sat and sweated in the uncomfortable plastic seat usually reserved for undergraduate backsides. He tried not to look at his colleague as the large elderly gentleman held a chocolate éclair in one hand, a glass of warm Cognac in the other, and alternately conveyed the two towards the general region of his mouth. Doctor Handley was all too conscious that he needed Scudder for the project to work at all, but that didn't mean he had to like it.
"And then, '46, we had a spot of bother," Professor Scudder spoke between swigs and chews but occasionally and disastrously mid-chew or mid-swig. "I saw some action, of course. Got wounded near Bombay. You a forces man?"
Myron Handley swallowed his revulsion. "Uh, no. All a bit before my time, really. I, uh, concentrated on more academic pursuits."
"Sissy, eh? Too trouser-soilingly terrified to stick it to Johnny Foreigner? Remind me again why I need you." Scudder wore a pair of khaki shorts which he pulled tightly over his paunch, straining his fly buttons enormously.
"We both need each other, distasteful though I admit it seems. Alone, we're the minority-interest dons afraid to move with the times. Together, we can take on the world." Myron Handley's Adam's apple bobbed alarmingly when he talked and his waving arms revealed leather elbow-patches. "The 'Oxford Oxford Comma Preservation Society' and the 'Federation for Plutonic status Recognition' may have but one member apiece, but united we are strong." Dr Handley was young and relatively good looking in a bookish way. There was, however, something about his appearance that tended to make his older colleagues feel uncomfortable. The university was full of young savants with no social skills and more book-learning than their forgetful elder colleagues found comfortable, but few had Handley's fanaticism.
Scudder knew full well that he had not been Handley's first choice for a partner-in-crime. Indeed, he was probably aware he had not been in the top ten. Nonetheless, while Scudder's classes had become little more than parodies of what one expects of an Oxford don, there were some things he cared passionately about. Chief among that list were warmth, good brandy, and the Oxford Comma.
"Nasty breeze in here. Shut that window."
Handley had been relying on the wisps of fresh air from the barely-open window to keep him conscious. It was stupefyingly hot in the room and he could feel the sweat collecting behind his knees and pooling unpleasantly on the undergraduate chair. He shut the window and suffered in silence. He had a small glass of weak whiskey-and-soda, the nearest thing to a soft drink the elder don was prepared to admit into the hallows of his study. He took occasional small sips but it was only increasing his propensity to drowse.
"You have a wife?" Scudder enquired. Handley had, in fact, never been alone in a room with a woman – except students, which scarcely counted; of course, one heard rumours but really it would totally undermine one's professional standing to be caught in flagrante, as it were – but he felt that to say so might leave him open to charges of homosexualism. Handley had hitherto suspected he might be gay but was unprepared to admit it to odious and elderly dons of brief acquaintance before he'd even fully admitted it to himself.
"No," Handley replied more firmly than he'd intended, reining in the impulse to add 'sir', "No, I haven't met the right woman."
"Can't be doing with women." Scudder replied thoughtfully. "Give me a chap any day. Oh, I remember the showers after rugby at school..." Scudder sank into a reverie, while Handley gripped his glass firmly and tried to look heterosexual.
"We are both agreed then?" Handley ventured eventually.
"Of the need for action as regards our respective situations," Handley realised this could still be misconstrued, and continued quickly, "specifically, in respect of the recent popular attacks against the once proud institutions in the service of which we have staked our academic reputations."
"Oh, that. I thought you meant..."
"Very well. So the question remains," Scudder paused to inhale the remaining Cognac in his glass and to refill it from the bottle. "What, action, exactly, shall we take?"
"I thought, perhaps, a demonstration of some sort," Handley proposed apologetically. "Students chained to the railings, loudspeakers, placards and slogans."
"Comma and slogans?"
"Yes, yes, I thought comma," Handley lied hastily.
"The trick there would be finding some students not already chained to some other bloody railings, persuading them to chain themselves to our railings, and then persuading anyone in the wider world to give a flying figgy fart that yet more students were chained to railings. I mean really Handley, railings and students, it's not like there exists a shortage of either commodity."
"Well, what was your bright idea then?" Handley retaliated.
"I thought you could commit some kind of Hara-Kiri with a carefully drafted statement to read out. You could record it onto VHS." Scudder was not being entirely serious, Handley suspected. Even someone of his advancing years and lack of contact with the outside world must surely have noted the demise of the VHS?
"I thought," Scudder continued, "that you were so attached to this Pluto planet thing..."
"...Federation for Plutonic Status Recognition. As a 'concession' they've reclassified it as a 'dwarf planet,' now, which is frankly insulting. One can't go around calling midgets 'dwarves' nowadays, and a planet is many times larger than a dwarf, uh, midget person."
"Yes, that." Scudder's chins wobbled in agreement. "I thought you were so attached that you would welcome the opportunity to lay down your life in the cause. And of course I could be there afterwards, read the statement, and so forth."
"Well, then I have no idea, unless..."
"We shall both draft a strongly worded letter to the Times."
"Well, that's settled then."