The Colonel, for that’s what he was, or had been, up until recently, looked a little flustered. Like myself, he had been invited to the evening’s proceedings because, somehow, he and Professor Ethnopholes had a friend in common. He too had been party to a mysteriously awkward conversation of greeting with our hostess. He had, similarly, giggled often at Alterity’s kind flatteries, come away with a very strong sense that he should not disappoint her, and, at her suggestion, had gone to mingle a bit. Which was all very odd, he mused, because he was not one given to reverting a pubescent state. Not even when beautiful and accomplished women complimented him on his posture. No, he had been a leader of men and women for most of his adult life; a strictly disciplined man. He had made many hard decisions, and had done many difficult and harrowing things. Like that time [classified material], which had been a very traumatic affair indeed, and from which he had emerged as smooth and tough as a polished concrete block.
“It’s very strange, is it not? I remember this time, at a bar while in [classified location], when [more classified material] because [some particulars so classified, that they can lock you in a cave just for thinking about them]. I mean, I didn’t feel the need to gurgle and giggle like a sixteen-year-old boy meeting a center-fold then, did I? What’s your opinion, Wingsmith?”
I conceded that it was all a little weird, although I was rather used to being put off-balance by attractive and intelligent people. It happened to me all the time, I confessed. Sometimes, I foolishly admitted, I’d been put off-balance by people that may not even be people at all.
“Really?” Asked the Colonel, looking incredulous, “what is it you do again?”
I explained that I write a blog, which, while I don’t get paid for it, is what I actually do. It’s what I do for the most part, anyway. This seemed like it might have been a little too vague, so I then gave a needlessly detailed account of the things that I have written about, and where I thought that my blogging journey properly began.
“So you’re an unemployed writer, then?” Remarked the Colonel astutely. “And you just sort of write about your life, opinions, and things that happen, to no real purpose?”
“Well, unemployed blogger, but yes, I guess you could see it that way.”
“Remarkable,” said the Colonel, trying to decide whether he was impressed or not. “And people, just … read the stuff you write … sorry, ‘blog’, for entertainment?”
If this conversation had been happening in a movie, this is the point where my character – played by some respected character actor – would turn to the camera, break the fourth wall, and say: “well, I don’t know if people are actually reading it, but they could. You know? If they felt like it.”
But this was not happening in a movie, and all I could muster was a weak and embarrassed, “I can’t really tell … perhaps …” before trailing off meekly. (I even looked down at my feet, just to see if they were still there, and shuffled them a bit, just to check that they still worked.) This, as you might expect, killed the conversation, and made me very thirsty all of a sudden. It also, serendipitously, made the Colonel very thirsty. So, with mumbled agreement, we each resolved to be thirsty at opposite sides of the room for a little.
From my new perspective in a quiet corner, right next to the drinks tray, I took stock of the other guests. Including myself, and the Colonel, there were about thirty of us; at least, as a rough estimate (I’d been a bit too thirsty to make an accurate count by this point). As best as I could tell, the ‘professional’ make up of the gathering was very diverse. There were a few scholars, of course, and some graduate students; these were drawn from the Department of Interstitial Studies, of which Alterity was the head. In fact, I was pretty sure that the Colonel was now talking to one of the graduate students about the library’s stained glass window.
“…. Yes, yes, I understand that it is all cleverly symbolic, but why is the crocodile eating an apple?”
There was also a man, whose name I cannot recall, that ran his own business, although he prefered to think of himself as a merchant and purveyor of fine spices. He was accompanied by his wife, who ran her own business concern, and prefered to think of herself as a ‘Captain of Industry’, even though she thought the epithet unfashionable these days.
“Mostly I just use that title to really annoy people,” I heard her say at one point. To which she added, “It also has the advantage, that should it become fashionable again – which it most assuredly will – I will have the pleasure of annoying people further, by pointing out that I had been using it first.”
In addition to these, there was at least one bishop, an engineer, two philosophers (who like to travel in pairs, just incase they need to disagree about something), and one brewer of boutique beers. This doesn’t exhaust the list of occupational backgrounds present, but it should give some idea of the diversity gathered in the library on that occasion. All of these occupations were dispersed in groups of two or three, and all were engaging in polite ‘it’s quite interesting, actually’ conversations.
The whole scene reminded me, rather uncomfortably, of a board game I’d often played in my childhood. Perhaps you know the one? Where players have to guess who killed whom, in what room, with which weapon? I was just thinking, “in the library, most likely, probably with a gargoyle-head light-fitting, by …” when the tolling of a bell brought all conversations to a halt.
“My most esteemed guests, if I might have your attention? I trust we are all suitably ‘mingled’ now, and are ready to make a start on this evening’s discussion? Good, that is excellent, if I could just get you all to take a seat in the circle of chairs there? No … not that one Colonel, that is my chair, but I would be most honored if you took the one directly next to it.”
We were, of course, being addressed by the most beautiful and accomplished Professor Alterity Ethnopholes. She took her own seat next to the Colonel (who seemed to be alive with pubescent giggles), and to whom she again spoke charmingly:
“I hope you don’t mind Colonel? It’s just that I am very fond of this particular chair. I believe it was a substitute throne for some princess or another, and, unlike most thrones, is surprisingly comfortable.”
The Colonel gurgled that he was perfectly happy to defer to our hostess’ preference. He wondered, though, if she might be so kind as to reveal how one acquires a princess’ substitute throne? It did look very comfortable, and he was rather taken with the falcon carving at its apex. The rabbit in its talons was so very life-like.
“I’m afraid I don’t know how you could go about acquiring one, dear Colonel,” answered Alterity, “this one is something of an Ethnopholes family heirloom. I have no idea how we came by it, myself.” Then turning elegantly away from the Colonel, who was definitely poised for another question, she addressed a young woman standing just behind her, and a little to the left.
“Sarah, would you race out and fetch James? I think we’ll be needing him in here for this part of the evening, after all.”
You may remember that James, who introduced himself to me as Jim in volume two, is one of Alterity’s two post-docs. You might also remember that Jim had been relegated to door duty, on account of some less than subtle work in the thinking department of late. And you have probably correctly guessed that Sarah is the second post-doc, and this week’s intellectual star. What you probably didn’t guess, is that Sarah looked less than pleased with this directive from her esteemed mentor.
“But Professor,” offered Sarah respectfully, “perhaps you have forgotten the complete lack of subtlety?”
“Please do not concern yourself Sarah,” Alterity said, in a very reassuring tone of voice. “I merely need James to take over the distribution of drinks, and those very tasty nibbles, so you can take notes.”
Sarah must have been reassured, as she looked both deeply relieved and a little proud at the receipt of this information. She then bustled off, in a very self-satisfied way, to retrieve her colleague. Jim, I have to say, seemed to exhibit emotions that moved in the opposite direction once he saw Sarah picking up notebook and pen. I infer from this, that the taking of notes on such occasions is something of a great honor for Ethnopholes’ post-docs.
“Now that we’re all settled,” Alterity began, “I wonder if you would permit me the conceit of offering up the topic for discussion? I was going through some old notes left over from my 2005 book – I’m sure you all know the one – when I came across this notation that seems deliciously complex. Let me see, where is it. Ah yes, here it is: We live in an age characterized by a premium put on the ‘being’ of individuals. This is despite the fact that our everyday experience, and actions in the world, undermine this premium at every turn.”
Well, I have to say, I had exactly nothing to offer by way of intelligent comment to this. The only internal response I had, was a strong feeling of ‘being’ completely out of my depth. Not so for one of the philosophers, however, since he got of the mark rather quickly. Let’s call him: Philosopher One.
“Ah yes, perhaps it is very like what Sartre was saying, when he wrote ….”
“No it wasn’t.” This was the voice of Philosopher Two.
“But I hadn’t finished,” complained Philosopher One, “you don’t know what I was going to say.”
“Yes I do, I know exactly what you were going to say. The reason I know, is because you always bring up Sartre, and you always completely misrepresent his position. We could be talking about the nutritional value of raisins, a thing he never wrote about to my knowledge, and you would bring him up.”
“He might have written about raisins,” objected Philosopher One, “in his early work, anyway.”
“But he didn’t, and even if he had, you’d still get it completely wrong,” asserted Philosopher Two, definitively.
There was a brief pause while Philosopher Two reveled in his victory. A victory, I imagine, that was due to his mastery of rhetoric.
“I wonder? Well … no, it’s probably not relevant.”
The utterance had come, in a shaky and quiet delivery, from the brewer of boutique beers seated on the opposite side of the circle.
“Please, Edward,” encouraged Alterity, “we are all friends. There’s no judgement here.”
“There’s some judgement,” said Philosopher One, in a surly and mumbling tone.
“It’s just,” continued Edward, feeling suitably encouraged, “I wonder if it’s a bit like gruit?”
“Gruit?” asked the Captain of Industry.
“Yes. Specifically, the difference between gruit ales – which are brewed with mixtures of medicinal, and bittering, botanicals – and modern hopped beers. It’s quite interesting, actually ….”
As the discussion really took off at this point, one could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps it really had been about gruit, after all. So perhaps it was, but it also wasn’t. For reasons I won’t go into, I have spent some time amongst specialists and professional intellectuals of differing sorts. In my experience, one thing you can guarantee when they get together, is that, no matter what the topic, each will try to find a way to turn the discussion to his or her own peculiar interests. This is why the engineer mentioned something about ‘load stresses’, the merchant about purveying spices, and the bishop … something to do with sheep, I think. Philosopher One even mentioned Sartre again (with predictable results). It is also why, despite the seeming irrelevance of each remark, all remarks were also deeply relevant. Which is to say, everybody there was pretty much used to this sort of behavior. By the time the discussion had become a debate, which in turn, had become a discussion again, almost everybody had said something. That is, with three exceptions.
These exceptions were myself – who was way in the deep end at this point – the Colonel, and, most notably, Alterity Ethnopholes. I thought the the fact that our hostess had been so silent a little unusual, especially given that she had proposed the topic of conversation. I guessed she had her reasons though, which were probably fair enough. At any rate, as the discussion died down to a murmur she turned to the Colonel, lightly touched him on the shoulder, and asked him if he was all right?
“What? Yes, sorry, perfectly fine.”
“Oh, I am pleased to hear it, it’s just that I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on our discussion. Perhaps, you’ve had an experience, or been somewhere interesting that relates? Like …?”
“Like that time I was in [another classified location] you mean? When my unit was [you get the idea]?”
“Yes!” Alterity exclaimed in a disarmingly enthusiastic manner. “That sounds perfect, please do tell us about that. Don’t spare any details. Sarah, make sure you write all of what the Colonel has to say down. I’m sure a man of his unique experience and talents has many insights to give us. Particularly as they pertain to this story he is about to relate. Please, do go on Colonel.”
And so the Colonel did go on, and in great detail, for a long time. I regret to say that, even if I had been allowed to write it down here, I wouldn’t be able to. This is because of the fact that I sort of, well, spaced out a bit (it’s not my fault, I was very tired). I believe that when I did start paying attention again, I was looking at my hands. (Which I suppose I was doing to give my feet a rest, and to stop said feet feeling a little paranoid). To my surprise, all the guests were leaving, although I did not remember them getting up. But as this seemed to be the thing to do, I gathered myself up too, and started wandering sleepily towards the exit.
Alterity was, very hospitably I thought, saying individual goodbyes to each guest as they took their leave. When my turn came, she took me warmly by the hand, and complimented me again on my grandfather’s lovely suit.
“It was such a pleasure to have you here Arthur, I shall definitely be inviting you again.”
I happily admitted that I would love to come again, but that I was afraid I hadn’t done much in the way of making a contribution.
“That’s what I like about you the most Arthur,” she beamed, “such a humble and silent man. But you will see me again, and please feel free to write about this occasion in your blog. I do so very much enjoy your little anecdotes.”
She shook me again by the hand and took her leave. Just as I was turning to make my egress, I realized that the Colonel was still there. He was seated where he had been for the discussion, and drinking what looked to be a brandy. Alterity was making her way back towards him, which seemed to make him blush. And Sarah, who was now seated next to him, appeared to be opening a new notebook.
As I stepped into the foyer I could just hear a faint, “please do tell me more Colonel.”
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