The morning’s work had gone slowly. Interrupted by questions from students and conversations with colleagues, he had not been able to fully use the time he had set. Though still, by midday the paper was nearing completion. On the Essence of Moral Decisions, the follow up work to two exalted books, it would be his last push towards that open Professor of Ethics seat at the university where he had trained, taught and grown in notoriety. This paper would secure that seat, he was sure. And, with time, the life of public speeches, guest talks and book signings which he had aimed for since he was a student and seen others realise for years. The essay was unashamedly bold, it needed to be. What is a moral decision? Was the question it posed and on the way towards answering it would weave through history, literature and art in order to delve once more into the root of rectitude, as he had with his books. This was to be an auxiliary work, supporting those arguments he had carefully laid down at length. Man is a moral being; in man’s essence lies the moral instinct. With this, perhaps sententious, line he would finish. The piece needed to be bold.
After an hour reviewing he paused, let the pencil drop onto the paper, reclined back in his seat and closed his eyes for a moment. It was ready. Just in time for the lunch he had scheduled with senior colleagues who were to read over the work. Reaching for his jacket and gathering the pages from his desk he made his way out of the office, along the hall, down the stone steps and through the arched entrance of the faculty. The air was close, as had been typical for the June they were nearing the end of. Rain had fallen all morning in heavy, sporadic bursts from blue-grey clouds whose remnants still passed gloomily over above. The cobbled pavements were a murky grey and blotched with puddles. He slipped as he walked excitedly towards the college dining hall at the other side of the town.
His mind leapt between thoughts, thoughts on the paper, the books, the seat, the signings, the speech, on the life. Mainly on the life. He walked with lightness in his step. With the publishing of the books and the supporting essays came a swelling sense of urgency and expectancy. That feeling of any moment now. And the life, this life to come, was the filter through which all of his work was now gaining significance. He thought back to his past work and the early days lecturing in the college faculty halls. That young ethicist, measured and beautifully self-assured, he knew well his subject, his position and his convictions. This confidence came across. Those lectures were always well attended. Along with the core of students, colleagues and often outsiders- professionals, teachers, managers and the like- would come and hear him speak on the infelicities of altruism, the hidden values in deontology or the virtues of particularism. Whatever his subject, he would hold their gaze as he treaded daintily through the history of ethics and gently interject with his own lines of thought and criticism. Delicate was the word for his style, delicate and measured, and it would gain him great respect.
These thoughts occupied him as he walked at pace through the archway leading to the cloisters of the cathedral and on up to the sloping medieval alleyway which windingly dissected the town.
Here, as he was halfway up the alley, his thoughts on the life were interrupted by something unusual: the sound of a vernacular accent, two vernacular accents. They were shouting. He slowed his step as the cries grew louder and more pugnacious. There were two men, they were fighting. Neither sounded willing to retract. Hidden at first behind the dimness of the passage, they became visible beneath the light of the roofless square which sat between both ends of the alleyway. The taller of the two was dark haired, bearded and wore a thick puffer jacket- the type travelling folks wear. The smaller, stockier man was shirted, beardless, flat nosed and thick jawed. He had all the marks of a fighter, facially and physiologically. They screamed at one another, gestured angrily, grappled, then to the ground they both fell. Unperturbed, they rose again, the smaller man spitting blood as he tried to catch his breath while the other tilted his head to either side to relieve an injured neck. Without any words spoken they locked together again.
He could not turn back, he was already late. They were preoccupied, they wouldn’t notice him. They didn’t. He stuck close to the wall of the square, unsure where to look or what to do. They were grounded again, though the fire was stoked and each rose again more determined, fighting to catch their breath. The taller man breathed heaviest. As he was creeping towards the freedom of the adjacent alley, the academic caught sight of him removing something from the inside pocket of his jacket. Money perhaps, perhaps he was done, perhaps this was the cause, the crux.
But he wasn’t done. He lurched at the smaller man, who had turned to face him, and forced a fist into his gut. By now he was walking at speed away from the light of the square through the dimness of the adjoining alleyway; he had almost made the opening, he was almost at the college. Only, of a sudden he heard the clumping sound of boots behind him then his papers were knocked suddenly from his hands. It was the taller man, he was fleeing.
“Where’d you come from? How long you been there?” The man asked frantically. “You ain’t seen nothing have you? What you seen?”
“No, nothing, nothing at all” He answered, his voice quivering.
The fighter reached down and picked up the papers, they were dirtied and disordered but still intact. He presented them with a bruised hand smattered with grey dirt and flecks of crimson red.
“Listen, I don’t know what you saw but you won’t say anything will you?” He asked pleadingly, without even looking at the papers he was presenting, “‘Cos he had it coming, he weren’t a good bloke.”
“As I said, I saw nothing.” He replied, this time with conviction as though trying to convince himself. The man nodded and limped towards the opening. Then, he was gone.
He reached the opening, now at the foot of the college he turned back towards the alleyway. No sound stirred. He paused to contemplate what he had seen. His only thought was of his passivity- his failure to act, his inadvertent acquiescence. Retrieving a handkerchief from his pocket he wiped the smears of mud and faded red fingerprints from the front page of the paper. It was readable. He glanced back for a final time then made his way up the old steps. As he did he was struck by a sudden feeling of uncertainty. Was it the seat or the stabbing which his work had led up to? Either way, his inaction spoke volumes.