Most days I see him at the Turf, cutting into a jacket potato with taw valley tickler cheese. Sometimes he’ll order a half lager, half cider topped with blackcurrant cordial. He calls it a Snakebite. He doesn’t enjoy it. I’ve learned a lot watching him. No longer do I send my ale back for being too warm (it’s not) or ask the barman for ice (there isn’t any). How else is a foreigner to know?
Hatemann isn’t a misanthrope, really, in the sense that he doesn’t hate man. He surrounds himself with people. In Oxford they’re everywhere. I’ve heard it’s more like Mr. Hatemann, in that he comes from a long line of the seriously hateful. Like me being a Smith, I might descend from blacksmiths or silversmiths or tinsmiths. Except the name used to be Schmidt and was later changed at Ellis Island, so there’s that to consider. Liam says Hatemann couldn’t have been an Oxford Don. I asked Liam what a Don was, and he couldn’t explain it, so I won’t either.
One night, I followed Hatemann out of the Turf. We — I say we, even though it was he, then I — began by sneaking into New College. It’s a misnomer, really, New College being the second oldest in England.
As usual, Hatemann always moved with real purpose, which made me kind of jealous, in a way. After a few minutes, we — he, then I — entered a huge clearing. In the center was this lump of hill with a set of stairs jagging the middle, and around it a ring of trees. I don’t know what kind. I later asked the Porter about the trees, and he told me it was a copse, but the way he said it, it sounded like another word.
I snuck to the bottom of the stairs, once Hatemann had reached the top. A moonbeam lit on him as he set down the cardboard box he was holding. I should have mentioned it earlier, I guess. From there he unfolded the top all special-like, and flipped the thing over. Out of it a dozen of the fattest, most hairless rats you ever saw darted in all directions. True North, North-North-East, like a compass rose. One nibbled at my shoelaces. I think it was West-South-West.
I now saw Hatemann for what he was; that was the kind of thought I didn’t have. But as I stood there in front of the hill’s bottom step, the fat moon reflecting off the one penny in my loafers, I got caught. Out of nowhere, a Porter came and grabbed me by the ear, which you don’t see much anymore. I tried to tell him about Hatemann and the rats, but he wouldn’t have it.
The Mound is off-limits to you lot. It’s sacred ground it is, the Porter said, still with a tuck of my lobe in his fist.
What are you talking about, that stupid hill? I asked.
That’s no hill, boy, the Porter said. It’s victims of plague been piled up through the ages. Spread by vermin they was.
To that I just said nothing, and counted the pulse in my ear until he let go.