As so often with academic activities, the departmental Christmas party is late getting under way. That's because the faculty member deputed to do the arrangements has managed to forget the liquor permit. It's been said that you can't run a university without sherry, but without that papery presence on the dingy (no money in the budget again for repainting) wall of the main office, to take so much as a sip of alcohol is a turpitude somewhere between seducing the president's wife and seducing the president's dog. But, it's here at last, taped up alongside some faded notices, so the licensed hilarity can begin.
"Well, we sure did a great job on the decorations," one associate professor says to the secretary.
"We sure did," chime in others, like a Greek chorus.
"Didn't we just," replies the secretary, whose appeal for help with this chore had gone unheeded and who had had to do it all by herself, on top of e-mailing the head's seasonal greetings; after hours as well, and not one cent in overtime. This associate professor would be bottom of her typing priorities next term, were either of them still to be around.
A newly-appointed instructor is tentatively sipping a rum-and-coke. He knows, courtesy of his 1960s hippie father, that this concoction was popularised in that curious era by the Beatles. A real scholar would have traced it back to the 1945 song of that name warbled by the Andrews Sisters.
His parent would have done well to linger over one of those beverages, rather than the habitual swilling down of bourbon and pills, which had first cost him his left leg when he wobbled on his bicycle in front of a San Francisco bus, and later his demise, the manner of which gained him his fifteen minutes of fame without his being around to savour them. He was electrocuted while urinating near a power pole on the side of a highway. The coroner, finding it difficult to compose his features, pronounced on the evidence of the deceased's companions that he had peed on a flooded ground line, causing his prosthetic leg to act as a strong conductor.
This instructor is standing off by himself in one corner. Nobody was paying any attention to him before, but that's not why. He's been agonising for weeks over whether or not to buy the department head a present. If he does, will it look too obviously like sucking-up? But what if he doesn't, and everyone else does? He's tried asking people in a roundabout way what they've done in previous years, but they are no better at answering subtle questions than he is at posing them. He's considered a possible compromise, a joke present, something to demonstrate thought without ulterior motive: but what kind of rib-tickler do you give to somebody famous for having no sense of humour?
That's actually not quite fair to the department head who, strictly speaking, should these days be called The Chair, but not eveyone can bring themselves to address him thus with a straight face, despite a woodenness of character often compared to that particular piece of furniture - "O Chair" seems a locution more suited to the soon-to-be-eliminated Classics Department in the basement and its first-year Latin grammar drills. Right now, he is putting on his party hat. He's made it himself, with folded pages torn from an academic offprint. He does this every year. It's always made from the same offprint. He's only ever published the one article. "All this administration," he pleads, "gets in the way of the real thing."
Wearing this carefully contructed jester's cap, the head thrusts a styrofoam cup of punch, his own speciality, an obscure concoction, multi-hued like liquid Crayola reflecting in a puddle of sunlit gasoline, into the hand of the nearest graduate student. "Well, Merry Christmas," he says, as though reading from a teleprompter, "Have a good one."
This graduate student, present only for tactical reasons, is the lone Jewish one among them. Her name is Hagith Levant, evidently not a good enough clue for gentile men and scholars. Those few faculty members who do register the faux pas snigger cautiously behind their own drinks. They would like to register their sympathy and contempt, but without making it too obvious which sentiment is for whom. After all, they may have tenure, which emboldens them to ignore the head's punch, but there's nothing to stop her from dreaming up a sexual harassment charge against them, or him from assigning them an eight a.m. class in the winter term or putting them on the committee that is mulling over a proposal to install pay phones in faculty offices.
The other graduate students, who had been pointed as they arrived towards a crate of rum-less cokes, look uneasily at each other: are they seeing themselves as they will be in ten years time?
Hagith Levant, an atheist except when she goes home, is not genuinely upset, but decides to stage an indignant walk-out. She was leaving soon, in any event, for a more private engagement. She calculates that, should she need it, future memory of this episode will make a useful marker to call in: a late essay, for example, or getting out of a second section of bonehead freshman language laboratory supervisions.The instructor sidles out a few moments later. More sniggering, less concealed, from those who notice: what chance does he think he's got?
Even before this little melodrama, people have been generally standing around wondering what to say next. Except for two full professors, who now break the stagnant silence by squaring up to each other in a well-honed routine designed to clothe their decades-long feud in a diaphanous dress of duologue, emphasised by their brandishing like rapiers the Bavarian beer steins each always brings to these gatherings as a reminder to hoi polloi that they have had sabbaticals in Europe.
"So, you going to the MLA this year?"
"That slave auction? Not on your life. They wanted me to do a panel, of course, but I told them where to stick it. Why, are you?"
"I'm giving a paper, if that's your question."
"Well, maybe I will come after all. Just to give myself the pleasure of being there and not going to hear you."
The secretary, who had once tacked up a Time magazine profile of the MLA meetings which amongst other disparagements quoted a hotel desk clerk as saying he'd never known a conference with less screwing or more drinking, judges this a good moment to urge people's attention towards the hitherto neglected foodstuffs meticulously arranged in her in-trays and out-trays: nondescript sandwiches, sawdust shortbreads, and a crazily-angled Christmas cake, a tumid stylistic mix of Dickens and Dali, topped by plaster robins which she does not warn people to avoid. Who knows? In her previous post, the most important person there had not realised the artificiality of festive robins; it had required a hyper-Heimlich manoeuvre to expel the powdery beak from his throat."
Oh, look," says someone, "Entrees in the in-trays, isn't that cute?" This draws no response. Somebody else suggests dancing to the background drone of seasonal songs coming out of a now old-fashioned portable tape-deck perched on a chair. There is no response to this, either.
Worrying over the possible Hagith Levant repercussions, the head recalls the time she sat on the department's photo-copying machine and xeroxed herself. Political correctness hanging over them like stale gun smoke, no one ventures beyond "Well, that could have been interesting..."
It wasn't. Hagith Levant was "really into Absurdism," hadn't even taken off her coat. On another occasion, when pressed by an activist group with which she had been very briefly associated, to enhance one of their regular 'anti-Fascist' demonstrations by pouring sugar into the tank of the designated villain's car, she'd thrown in sachets of Nutrasweet instead.
At 4.55 on the nail, the secretary plays her intended ace, hoping to make everyone feel a louse by handing out carefully though not colourfully wrapped presents, knowing that she wouldn't get anything from them. But her ace is trumped, there's no time for even a mouse-squeak of guilt, thanks to the head who removes his party hat, consults (not for the first time) his watch, and announces as though bringing a seminar to a close, "Well, that's it for another year. We'd better get going before our vehicles freeze up. You know the administration switches the power off at five sharp, and it must be twenty below out there."
To himself he's also saying, in words that he would never frame in public, I wonder why that asshole instructor quit so early? I really needed to finalise his winter term schedule before the break. I should maybe think twice about having him back next year.
"Oughtn't we to clean up this mess first?" some fool asks.
"No, the secretary can do that."
She leaves alone, humming a snatch of 'Eleanor Rigby'. Her shopping-bag clinks with the left-over bottles. Blame for such appropriations can always be diverted to the Korean cleaners, one of whom will soon be puzzled by his discovery in a lecture room of a pair of panties. Even if his English were better, their HL monogram would mean nothing to him. He slips them into his pocket to take home as a present for his wife, an act that will cause him some trouble when the police find them in the course of their investigation into their owner's disappearance.
The instructor will also be under suspicion, but nothing will be found against him. In any case, the police have their hands full with the deaths of everyone else at the Christmas party, thanks to what had been mixed in with the refreshments. They would very much like to talk to the secretary, but no dice. She is tucked away somewhere in South America with Hagith Levant, whose treatment at the party and enforced Yuletide congress with the instructor has finally convinced her that men, epecially academic ones, are not for her.
Hardly is everyone in the ground, or in urns on mantlepieces, before the temporary secretary must cope with the fax machines spitting out multi-paged applications for the vacancies that thanks to the next round of budget cuts will be filled only at junior levels or not at all. She will be re-shuffled into the Computer Sciences' ever-growing steno pool. His fixed-term position means curtains for the instructor who after two years of expensive and futile job-hunting will choose in the last of his increasing moments of alcohol-fuelled despair to join his late colleagues, wherever they are.
Biographical Note: Born (1937) and educated in England; college-university lecturer in England/Australia/Canada. Now Emeritus Professor of Classics, University of Calgary, and Fellow of The Royal Society of Canada. Published 12 books and c. 600 articles on Greece, Rome, Byzantium, 18th-Century History & Literature, and Albanian History/Language/Literature. As freelance writer, have contributed many magazine and newspaper articles on many subjects in various countries. Did a 2-year stint as regular columnist for the British daily newspaper Morning Star. Currently write regular columns for (e.g.) Catholic Insight (Canada); Fortean Times (UK/USA); Presbyterian Record (Canada); Stitches (Canada); Verbatim (USA/UK).