Invitations to social gatherings at the library of Alterity Ethnopholes are, among certain circles, highly prized and hotly sort after. For many, such an invitation is a sign that, if one has not quite ‘made it’ yet, one is well on the way. For others, the appearance of those gold embossed cards through the mail is akin to receiving a lifetime achievement award for a job well done. To say that it is considered prestigious by members of a certain intellectual milieux would be the height of understatement. It is rather like receiving an honorary degree from a top tier university – which is fantastic – only to discover that the degree in question turns out to be both honorary and real (which would be enough to make the recipient weep for joy). That’s how much weight these invitations carry around these parts. That is to say, a whole lot more than formal honors do. It is also why I was rather surprised to receive one.
But receive one I did, hand delivered no less, and in a wax-sealed envelope with a coat of arms on the front where a stamp would normally be. It was very elegant: italic style calligraphy on matt black card, and written in very formal language. It read thusly: Professor A. Ethnopholes requests and requires the attendance of Mister A. Wingsmith for an event to be held in her most august library Friday Week at Seven-Thirty, post meridiem of the clock.
Much to my discredit, it took me a while to decipher this message, but eventually I gleaned that I was to show up at Ethnopholes’ library Friday evening of the following week. Which gave me at least a little time to start reading her published work, and also to buy a suit. (I wasn’t sure if I actually needed to wear a suit, but the tone of the invite suggested it was better not to take the risk.)
So it was, then, that on the right day, at the appointed hour, newly suited, and after a pleasant walk through the Ethnopholes estate’s private park, I arrived at the doors of the much celebrated library. Very impressive doors they were too, and imposing (a little like the stained glass window I was to see inside later, and that I described in volume one). They consisted of a series of carved panels, which depicted scenes of scholars doing various scholarly things. Scholars mapping the movements of planets, scholars writing books, scholars addressing large audiences to promote the books we just saw them writing, and so on. The door knocker was styled in the manner of a scholar holding a brass ring. This I used to knock, which seemed sensible at the time.
“Why’d you go and do that?”
The voice had come from a small opening that, just seconds ago, had been a carving of a scholar grading a student essay.
“Do what?” I asked, somewhat confused.
“Use the door knocker, I’ll have to polish that again now. It took me ages last time too; it’s the humidity here, really plays havoc with brass.”
“I’m sorry, I just assumed that I was supposed to use it … you know, so people could know I’m at the door? … I didn’t mean to cause any trouble.”
“I see,” said the voice again, “well, for future reference, ring the bell. It’s just there next to the doorframe, right under the sign that reads: PLEASE USE THE BELL; UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES REACH FOR THE BRASS RING.”
There was then the sound of a lock unbolting, and several of the panels slid backwards to reveal a small entranceway, through which I was invited to make my ingress. I did so, feeling suitably contrite for the whole door knocker fiasco.
On the other side, I was confronted with a small foyer and a tall thin man, who looked to be somewhere in his late twenties. I handed him my invitation, which he checked with great care.
“If you will just follow me Mr. Wingsmith, I have to get you to sign some forms before I can show you to the main room. It’s all very standard, the Professor has all her guests sign them. Even her brother when he comes to visit. You don’t happen to have a smartphone, or anything like that do you? Tablet device, camera, or tape recorder?”
I confirmed that I did not.
“Very good; it’s only that I’d have to take that stuff from you if you did, just for the duration of your visit, you understand. You’re sure you’re not hiding a digital recorder or anything?”
I confirmed, again, that I was not; mostly because it was the truth.
“Excellent, well, this will just take a minute, if you could sign here, and again here … and lastly, right here. Now, I’ll just need to get your thumb print. Don’t worry, you can wash the ink off at that basin in the corner there.”
While I was cleansing my thumb of ink, I asked the young man if the Professor had many domestic staff. A question that seemed to puzzle him somewhat. But then he realized my mistake.
“Hahaha,” he chuckled, rather falsely I thought, “no I’m one of the Professor’s post-doctoral fellows. My name is Jim.”
“Ah,” I said, “do post-docs often have to answer the doors here?”
“Yes, although sometimes we get to serve drinks too. I normally get to do that, but I did some pretty poor research last week, so I’m on door duty. My counterpart is in the main room doing drink service this evening. Apparently her research was much more subtle than mine, so she gets to be in on all the action. Not to worry, though, I’m onto something so subtle that I’m not even sure I understand it. That’ll definitely get me back into the big room next time.”
Jim then turned abruptly and said, “If you’ll just come this way, I’ll take you through.”
Another set of heavy doors, and there I was inside the library. At first, I was a bit startled. It was much more brightly lit than the foyer – probably on account of all those gargoyle-head lamp fittings vomiting light everywhere. I have mentioned those previously, I think (see volume one). I could vaguely hear myself being announced to the room in general:
“Mr Arthur Wingsmith … he’s some sort of blogger or something ….”
“Yes, thank you James, I know who he is. You can go back out to the foyer now. I’ll call for you if I should need you again. Oh, and James, perhaps you could take this time to look over your work. I still believe in you, but you really have been dropping the ball a bit lately.”
And then, that same voice, but directed at me this time, “Arthur, I am so pleased that you made it. You wouldn’t believe how many people don’t manage to understand the invitations.”
It was, I was surprised to realize, a rather beautiful voice. Once I’d adjusted to the light, I was even more surprised to find that it was attached to a very striking looking woman, one wearing a very expensive looking evening gown.
“Oh, but how absent minded of me, I forgot to introduce myself. I am Alterity Ethnopholes, your hostess.”
You guessed it, more surprise from me. Now, possibly you are thinking that I get surprised very easily. I imagine you may think that I pretty much walk around with my mouth hanging open, on account of my being so easily astounded at everything. That’s not the case at all … well, it’s partly the case, but not all the time, and certainly not that time. It’s just that Professor Ethnopholes didn’t look at all how I imagined her to look. Sort of – how do I put this – not very professorial. I thought she’d be more frumpy for one thing, perhaps with bifocals and a cardigan. Based on the rather browbeaten look of Jim, I thought perhaps she might even carry around a heavy cane for whacking people with. Especially people who accidently used the brass door knocker. I was certainly off the mark there.
“Why Arthur, you do look so very bewildered. Is everything ok? I do love that vintage suit you are wearing, was it your grandfather’s?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“It is wonderful,” she appraised, “it makes you look so eruditely ironic.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it made me feel very good to hear it, nonetheless. Very good indeed. Too good, maybe. Was I going to be invited to play the age guessing game later? I put such concerns out of my head.
“Thank you Professor, my … uh … grandfather was very fond of this suit.”
Seriously, I have no idea why I continued with that charade, except that I felt fairly committed to it by this point.
“Please, do call me Alterity, Professor makes me sound as if I should be wearing a cardigan, or something in the line of being generally frumpy. Which as you can see, is not true. Hahahaha, just my little joke Arthur; but please do call me Alterity.”
“Hehehehe,” I giggled. (I’m not sure what was happening with me there, I hadn’t even had a glass of wine yet.)
“Now Arthur,” continued Alterity more seriously, “you are probably wondering … wow, that’s powerful thirst you have there, just grab another wine from the tray, yes that’s right, plenty to go around. As I was saying, you are probably wondering how it came to pass that you received my invitation?”
I confessed that I was.
“It turns out that we have an acquaintance in common, I too am a long time friend of Sylvester G. Weatherface. He speaks very highly of you indeed; he told me the most delightful story about how you two first met. Hilarious.”
“Sylvester?” I blurted, “is he here, then?”
I was hoping that if he was, he hadn’t heard me say anything suit related.
“No, unfortunately Sylvester, who was very naughty last time, is on a three month banishment from my little soirees.”
“Really? what’d he do?”
“Oh, nothing too serious, which is why it is only for three months. You remember the forms you had to sign? Yes, well, he very cheekily brought in a smartphone, an action clearly forbidden by the third paragraph on the second page, under the heading ‘there will be consequences‘. But he is a dear, and I’m really very fond of him.
“Anyway, he tells me that you have all sorts of very strange ideas, and so I resolved to invite you to join our little discussion this evening. Which is why you are here, and very pleased I am that you could come.
“Please do mingle a little, we’ll get started in about half an hour I should think. We’ll chat again a bit later.”
With that, after flashing me a very disarming smile, Alterity moved off into the recesses of the room, and disappeared from view.
Not wanting to disappoint my hostess (for reasons I cannot explain), I, quite uncharacteristically, went to mingle. After a good half hour, the discussion proper did get going ….
But that is a story for the third, and final, volume of Ethnopholes’ library.