The Whisky Blot
This story is dedicated to Andy.
Professor Smith awoke to the most extraordinary feeling - as if she’d been married with children for twenty years. Yet nothing could be further from the truth: coupling with some sweaty, farting, hairy man had always been repulsive to her, such that she had long since banished any such thought from her mind.
She gazed out at the neatly-trimmed lawn of Marlowe Court, which had stood in the centre of this Cambridge college for centuries. While her own tenure here amounted to just 25 years, she felt more kinship with its ancient granite and sandstone than she did with any of her lust-bucket fellow humans.
After her customary boiled egg and slice of toast, consumed with a cup of Earl Grey to the soundtrack of Radio 3’s morning programming, she sallied forth to the Porter’s Lodge to check her post.
Professor Smith hadn’t received anything other than rare books and journals in her cubby-hole for more than a decade, and even that rarely. These days, she went to the Porters’ Lodge for the banter with the all-male, all ex-forces Portering team. A particular favourite was Mr. MacGuinness, an ex-Beefeater and Guardsman who became an enthusiastic alcoholic following his military retirement. His red face and handlebar mustache made him look like a drunken sea mammal, while highly polished shoes and an earthy reek of tobacco confirmed his military history.
“Good morning Professor Smith! It’s looking a bit empty in your hole, I’m afraid.”
She stared at him, wondering whether he had just stated a fact or flirted with indecency. She allowed herself the beginnings of a smile before gathering her Incan poncho about her:
“Good morning, Mr. MacGuinness. Perhaps you’d prefer it if I enlarged my post-bag?”
“I don’t know about that, Professor. But a gentleman called for you and” –
“A gentleman? Now there’s a rarity. Especially at eight AM.”
“A Mr. Felipe Silvio, he said. He left a mobile phone number.”
MacGuinness handed over a pink slip torn from an ancient message pad. Professor Smith looked at the handwriting and didn’t recognise it. But then, she didn’t get the chance to see a lot of handwriting that wasn’t six hundred years old: these days it was all text messages and whatnot. Even student essays were sent by email or posted on something called an “assessment hub” which she’d yet to access.
“Did he say what he wanted?”
“No, Professor. Er, something about a fragment from Padua.”
“I see. Well, thank you. I shall give him a call.”
Returning to her rooms, she put the kettle on for tea and tried to remember whether she had ever met this Felipe Silvio and what he might want. She set her last clean tea-cup down, pushing unwashed plates and cups up against a pile of essays she was avoiding marking. Then she picked up the receiver of her ancient Bakelite desk phone and dialled the number given to her by MacGuinness:
Professor Smith hesitated. Although she’d been reading and speaking Italian for thirty years, it was just – well, whenever she spoke to a modern she feared her immersion in the language and politics of the fourteenth century might manifest itself.
“Sono Professore Smith”, she managed at last. “Ha chiamato per me?”
“Yes!”, boomed Signor Silvio’s voice. “Professor Smith! I have the fragment. The fragment from the original Canto Twenty-Three of the Purgatorio what you wanted.”
“I see”, Professor Smith mused, unsure whether Silvio had switched to English owing to her poor accent, or because he wanted to show off. “Well, where is it?”
“I am here, qua, in Cambridge with the fragment. Please we can meet?”
Any meeting, and especially an off-the-cuff meeting with a stranger, was anathema to Professor Smith. Her timetable was mapped out for the entire term in advance: undergraduates knew any request to rearrange a tutorial was met with tight-lipped disapproval. Colleagues had even observed her disquietude if dinner in hall should be served five minutes late.
She checked the pocket diary lying on her desk. Other than a tutorial with a second-year rower of Olympian stupidity she’d scheduled for the end of the working day, that afternoon was empty.
“Why don’t we meet for tea at three? Shall we say the Copper Kettle on Kings’ Parade?”
“Perfetto”, Silvio confirmed. “Ci vediamo dopo, Professore!”
She put down the phone and clenched her fists. This was most unusual. She couldn’t remember asking to see any original fragment, or indeed whether such a fragment existed. Sighing, she picked up the essay by the aforementioned, ungifted rower and spotted two errors and a grammatical infelicity in the first paragraph. As she ploughed her way through the boy’s confection of plagiarisms, stultifying regurgitations, mistakes, mis-quotes and naïveté, her head drooped against the hand that propped it up against the desk. Before long she was asleep.
In her dream, Felipe Silvio was a raging bull chasing her through the streets of Cambridge. She was young again, racing across the market square on her undergraduate sit-up-and-beg bike with its wicker basket and heart-attack-inducing absence of brakes. However hard she pedalled, Silvio’s hooves beat harder against the cobbles and she felt his hot breath against her back. Eventually she could pedal no more and found herself succumbing to his masculine persuasive force, having ran out of puff on Jesus Green. The swans on the river craked as they witnessed her willing surrender to Felipe Silvio in the guise of a Taurean Lothario.
Professor Smith awoke with a start to feel the sun on her face. Her head lay among the undergraduate essays, dirty cups and plates streaked with butter and egg yolk. Her Bakelite phone swam into view together with the shell from that morning’s egg. She glanced at the alarm clock on her desk. Ten to three – just minutes before she was due to meet Felipe Silvio.
She rushed into the tiny bathroom in her set, pristine as it was (except the sink) through lack of use. She sniffed the hem of her jumper and realised she’d not changed her clothes for three days, or bathed. Never mind - nothing a dose of “Eau de Reine” couldn’t change. She duly doused herself in perfume, gave her teeth a perfunctory brush and looked in the mirror. She mussed her frizzy hair to the left and right, trying to cover up the grey. Then she carefully applied lipstick and headed for the Copper Kettle, remembering her keys and purse.
As she strode across the quad her mind was fogged with sleep and her heart with Felipe Silvio: what he might be like, what he might say. She half-ran up Kings Parade, sniffing her wrist furtively in the worry that she’d overdone the perfume. Oh well, too late now.
She recognised Silvio straight away. Where she’d pictured a broad-shouldered, mustachio’d Italian, she found instead cords and a round-necked sweater, thick glasses and nervous eyes that jumped around the room. She approached his table.
“Professor Smith! An honour! I have read your monograph on the demotic and divine in Canto XXIII and I” –
Elaine Smith blushed for the first time since her teenage years. Someone had read her work.
“Oh, I – it’s nothing really. You’re most kind.”
They ordered coffee and Silvio produced a thick cream envelope, leaning forward conspiratorially into the steam rising from their coffees.
“What you are looking for is here”, he said.
“I see.” Professor Smith was put out by Silvio’s business-like tone. “The thing is, I don’t remember ordering it. That said, I will admit to an interest in the original orthography of the Purgatorio.”
She gave a little hoot of laughter, a nervous tic she had never rid herself of despite much self-admonishment whenever it occurred. Silvio tapped the side of his prominent nose conspiratorially and smiled.
“It is gift. From a secret admirer. More I cannot say. Arrivederche, Professor Smith. Please allow me the honour of paying for your coffee.”
Silvio rose from the table. They shook hands and Elaine felt the comfort of his warm, smooth, strong grip. Silvio pulled out his card to pay at the counter, saluting her as he left the café. After he left, Professor Smith reached into the envelope and found a scrap of taut, aged vellum. She pulled it out gingerly and her heart skipped a beat. Someone had just given her a textual variant from Canto XXIII.
In twenty years of scholarship she had never heard of such a thing. Suddenly all the self-denial, the loneliness, the undergraduate essays devoid of residual brain-stem activity – it all seemed worthwhile. Of course, Felipe Silvio had been something of a disappointment. But she wasn’t finished with him yet, either.
Returning to college, she tripped and fell against the sill of the ancient oak entrance. The initial stab of pain was replaced by a wave of regret in her heart, the same she’d felt earlier when she thought about the time she’d spent writing, marking, reading – all those activities she’d devoted herself to without anything else to focus on. Then she began to laugh and cry at once, softly at first, then with a ferocity that astounded her. Through her tears, she saw Mr. MacGuinness the Porter and one of his colleagues approaching.
“Come along, Professor Smith. Let’s get you a bandage and some painkillers. Poor woman.”
Elaine Silvio woke with a start on her sofa in Herefordshire. She’d had the strangest dream: she’d become an academic after graduation, rather than going into banking. Everything seemed different in her dream, and not in a good way – she dreamed herself to be sad, frustrated, middle-aged and unmarried without children, yet globally celebrated by a tiny coterie of scholars. In this other version of her life, her undergraduate interest in Dante became an all-consuming obsession that had eaten her womanhood.
Elaine sat up on the overstuffed sofa and rubbed her face with her hands. Billy the Welsh Springer lay asleep on the carpet before her. He snuffled and turned over, inviting her to rub his tummy.
It was Friday, she knew that much. She’d been up at four for a conference call with San Mateo about digital payments strategy. Accepting crypto. KYC, carry rules, AML and all those acronyms. So boring, so dull. But it paid for this house, and the kids’ education.
Felipe’s passion for rare books didn’t pay their groceries, even if he was one of the most well-known antiquarians in Europe. He must have got the kids off to school while she was working. And she must have fallen asleep after lunch.
She got up and stretched and looked out the window at the long expanse of the Welsh hills behind them, wondering what her life might have been like if she’d taken that PhD. Then she remembered it was her birthday, and she was due to meet Felipe and the kids in the centre of Hereford. For once, Felipe had agreed not to go to an Italian restaurant. The kids wanted Chinese – and they’d won.
When Professor Smith awoke, she lay alone in bed. The fragment Felipe Silvio gave her sat on top of the undergraduate essays, dirty cups and egg-smeared plates on her desk. Wincing in pain as she stood up, she hobbled over to her desk and peered intently at the fragment. She could hardly make out the words, they were so faint and hastily-scribbled. But there they were, clear as day, written above the accepted version. Where the Dante we knew had written:
… « ché ’l tempo che n’è imposto
più utilmente compartir si vuole »
Professor Smith could see words that didn’t mean, “the time of our life/can be used more fruitfully than this,” but instead – “time is our life, and time/is for none to dictate its use.”
She looked at the text four times from different angles. She turned the scrap over and tried to read it through the fading afternoon sun. She was certain: it was genuine. A real discovery, the first in Dante scholarship for centuries.
Elaine Silvio entered Hang-Sui House looking left and right for her husband. She’d dressed simply in a black trouser suit and a blue silk shirt, the same clothes she’d worn for work that day. But she’d refreshed her makeup, brushed her hair and added a spritz of “Eau de Reine,” the perfume Felipe always said reminded him of when they met. She wanted to make an effort for their celebration after a rushed journey to the restaurant from their home, caught in the traffic she’d forgotten existed since she started to work from home. The kids texted to say they’d be late – something about Anthony having to wait for Bea to finish hockey. At least it meant she’d have some time alone with Felipe.
When she reached their table, she kissed Felipe, his brown eyes smiling. She accepted a menu from the waiter and ordered a large glass of sauvignon blanc, scanning the menu. When her wine arrived, Felipe raised his glass of red in a toast:
“Salute, carissima. My gift to you.”
Felipe handed her an envelope. Inside there was another envelope containing a scrap of old parchment about two inches wide and three inches long. Elaine could make out some squiggly handwriting on it, thick with crossings-out and editing.
“What is it?”
“It is a lost verse from Dante’s Purgatorio. I found it in an antiquarian’s in Padua and persuaded them it was a medieval shopping list of minimal value. The words tell us no-one has the right to dictate how we live our lives. I know how much you loved his work, so…”
She kissed him again and turned the scrap of parchment over in her hands. She could hardly remember her Italian at this distance, let alone read such ancient handwriting.
“Grazie, darling,” she managed at last. The children arrived in a flurry of schoolbags, teen-speak and undried hair. The waiter brought prawn crackers and food was ordered. Laughter and chopsticks and toasts followed.
Pushing out into the gathering dark two hours later, Elaine waited with the children while Felipe went to fetch the car. Not listening to the kids griping at each other about some perceived slight visited on Bea by a girl at school, Elaine’s eye turned to the display window of a bookshop on the high street behind them. She caught sight of a pile of books in the window with a poster of the book’s title behind, and clutched for her son’s arm as she fainted:
Dirt and the Divine in Dante
Professor E.S.R. Smith
Professor of Medieval Italian Literature and Culture
University of Cambridge
A Scotsman by birth and profession (though only an occasional whisky-sipper), J.W. Wood's short fiction has appeared in the US (Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Carve, Expat Press), Canada, the UK (Crimeucopia, Idle Ink, others) and other markets around the world. He has worked as a literary reviewer and journalist and is the author of five books of poems and a pseudonymous thriller, all published in the UK over the last fifteen years.
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