Aloysius the Great Excerpt II, by John Maxwell O’Brien
John Maxwell O’Brien is an emeritus professor of history (Queens College, CUNY)) who has written numerous articles on ancient history, medieval history, and the history of alcoholism. His best-selling biography, Alexander the Great: The Invisible Enemy (Routledge), has been translated into Greek and Italian and he authored the article on alcoholism in the Oxford Classical Dictionary. Professor O’Brien’s second life has been devoted to his first love, creative writing. Professor O’Brien’s poems have appeared or will appear shortly in Literary Yard, Hedgehog Poetry Press (where his poem was shortlisted in the Cupid’s Arrow contest), IthacaLit, The Southwest Poetry Review, and the Irish Poetry Corner of Irish Arts & Entertainment. A short story of his is in the current issue of Kaleidoscope and he has just finished a debut novel entitled Aloysius the Great, an extract from which appears below. Professor O’Brien is now looking for a suitable publishing home for his novel.
“Readers of the June 2019 issue of Live Encounters Poetry & Fiction will notice that the author has transferred the term Hammersmith Tower to this chapter where it fits in more comfortably with the Ulyssean parallel that follows.”
Stately, slim Amalia Popper, head secretary of the School of History at Yorkshire University, appears in a smart navy-blue pinstriped suit, her oversized jacket failing to completely obscure an ample bosom.
“Hello, I’m Dr. Aloysius Gogarty from Municipal College. Is Professor Mountjoy available?”
“Dr. Gogarty, I’m afraid Mr. Mountjoy is presently in conference with the chairman of the department.” There’s a lilt to her voice. That’s a good sign.
I wonder what Mountjoy is like? Maybe I can get a hint of that from Miss Popper. Try Alexander’s oblique approach. It worked with Elena.
“What does he teach?”
“Mr. Mountjoy lectures on English and American history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He’s suggested you might be more comfortable waiting in his office than in the foyer,” she says.
Miss Popper leads me down the corridor of the top floor in Hammersmith Tower and opens his office door. I survey the room and my attention is drawn to a corkwood map of England covering the entire wall behind Mountjoy’s desk. It’s something you’d expect to see in a war room scene from a 1940s British film. The lower portion of the map is swarming in colored pins with heads an eighth of an inch or so in diameter. Whatever war is being waged southern England is getting the worst of it.
On Mountjoy’s desk stand three Waterford crystal glasses and a large bottle of González Byass sherry. Stationed in close proximity is a framed black and white photograph of a gaunt female, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf. Wife or mother?
“Mr. Mountjoy will be with you shortly. Approximately half ten, I should think. I’m afraid you’ll be unattended for a quarter of an hour or so. Will you be able to manage?”
“By all means, thank you.”
Miss Popper notices my fascination with the map and starts to offer an explanation
“Dickie”—she gasps, and a roselike blush blossoms on her neck—“that is, Mr. Mountjoy, is our admissions tutor. Mr. Mountjoy recruits some of the department’s best students from the south of England. He makes presentations on behalf of the university to sixth-formers in that region. Those pins represent his various visitations. I’m afraid he’s obliged to visit the south rather frequently.”
She slowly raises her left hand to explore the receding bloom. Her recitation seems to have restored equanimity.
“I’m sorry, but I must return to my desk. If I can be of any further assistance, please don’t hesitate to lift Mr. Mountjoy’s telephone and press the first button there at the top. You might like to glance at our brochure describing the department.” Miss Popper removes a ruler covering a neat stack of pamphlets on the desk and hands one to me before carefully restoring the ruler to its original setting. She excuses herself.
I try to focus on the brochure but can only work my way through a thumbnail sketch of the instructional staff. It’s the map that intrigues me. The reading material describes him as a senior lecturer, someone not at the top of the ladder, but not at the bottom either. Why is a senior lecturer engaged in the lowly task of recruitment?
Why am I so obsessed with this map? It’s the pins. There’s something going on here. There’s his appointment book. Maybe between that and the pins I can work out a pattern of some sort. No. No. Wait a minute. I spring to my feet, snatch the ruler from his desk, and tiptoe behind his chair to attack the map. Measuring, measuring. That’s it. I’ve got it!
The door flies open behind me, ushering in a gust of wind that rustles the papers on Mountjoy’s desk.
“Ehhhhhh. You must be the American.”
It’s Mountjoy. He’s about ten years older than me and slightly over six feet tall. Mountjoy’s a slim man with a closely-cropped head of black wooly hair highlighted by premature streaks of gray above his temples. He’s wearing a double-breasted charcoal-gray suit with a pale-blue shirt and a black tie with white stripes. It must be a college tie. I place the ruler back on his desk. “I beg your pardon. I’m Aloysius Gogarty from New York.”
“Yehhhhhs,” Mountjoy elongates, while looking in disapproval at my suit. “Somehow I’ve been able to surmise that. Ordinarily, I’d suggest you make yourself at home, but courtesies of that sort are gratuitous when it comes to Americans, aren’t they, old boy?”
I can’t decide whether to laugh or apologize, so I say nothing, still frozen in place.
He extends his hand and startles me by using an ironclad grasp to dance me out from behind the desk and deposit me into his visitor’s chair. Pleased at his maneuver, Mountjoy flashes a broad smile, exposing a mouthful of glistening teeth. He proceeds to pour two glasses of sherry and reaches across the desk to deliver mine. It’s barely eleven o’clock in the morning, so I adopt my “I don’t ordinarily drink at this hour” look. It’s ignored, and I meekly accept the glass.
“You could use this, old boy. Culture shock or I should say the inevitable trauma engendered when someone from your hemisphere finds himself in the midst of a bona fide culture. It’s similar to a time-warp experience, I should think.”
“I get it. In this case going back in time.”
“I’m told,” Mountjoy says, ignoring my riposte, “you’re working on one of the greats. Frederick, isn’t it? You’re undoubtedly aware of Frederick’s frugality, but did you know he was frightfully defensive about the costs incurred by his sizable stable of courtiers? He justified it by reassuring all those concerned that ‘dancers, prostitutes and professors come cheap’.”
I nearly choke on a trickle of sherry still halfway down my gullet and spray a fine mist over Mountjoy’s desk.
He beams with glee at my response while wiping the desk clean with his handkerchief. “Well, well, well, Dr. Gogarty. Here we are awaiting you with great expectations, and you shower us with great expectorations.”
I laugh and regain my composure. “By the way, it’s Alexander the Great. I’m putting the final touches on a biography of Alexander.”
“Alexander the Great?” He grimaces. “Aren’t there 3,197 biographies of Alexander already?”
“Well, not that many. Perhaps a hundred or so.”
“Stop right there. Is your pilgrimage to our sceptered isle going to be a learning experience, or are you on holiday?”
“Septic isle?” I ask, as if I’ve misunderstood the phrase.
He roars in appreciation of my intentional misunderstanding and swears by his wife’s picture—which is pointed toward the visitor rather than himself—that he’ll appropriate the term and flaunt it as if it were his own.
“I’ll assume you choose learning experience. Let the lessons begin. One never lies in even numbers, for if you do, the lie will fail to achieve its objective, which is, after all, to deceive, is it not? If you say, ‘I’ve done that a thousand times,’ no one will take your claim seriously. On the other hand, if you say with conviction, ‘I’ve done that thirty-seven times,’ it renders the assertion infinitely more credible, regardless of its validity.”
“Your point is well taken. In defense of writing yet another biography of Alexander, I do have a different take on the man. My emphasis is on his excessive drinking.”
“Excessive? Surely”—he screws up his face in faux distress—“you don’t mean to suggest he drank too much? We’re talking about a chap who conquered over two million square miles, did he not?”
Before I can answer, Mountjoy continues.
“Wasn’t it your Lincoln who, when someone suggested Ulysses S. Grant drank too much, said, ‘Tell me what brand of whiskey Grant drinks. I’d like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.’ In him, old boy, you had a president.”
“Yes, that’s true. But, for some, getting sozzled lubricates genius, while for others it proves to be debilitating.”
Mountjoy nods. “I choose to believe I fall into the former category. And you?”
“Me too.” This is going to be quite a year.
“Come to think of it, Gogarty, your scribbling on Alexander’s tippling could be of value. Every time you lift a jar you are, in a manner of speaking, at work in the laboratory, are you not?”
“I never thought of it that way, but you’re right, you know.”
“Ehh, yehhs. I do know. Well, let’s assume the world is your laboratory and drink to Britannia, you, and your wards.”
He raises his glass and I raise mine.
“Down to business. I’ve been designated by Professor Bisgood—that is, Professor Bertram Endicott Bisgood, our chairman, referred to henceforth by the initials BEB, as the link between you, your program, and the university. You’ll occasionally hear me refer to him as Bertie. Refrain from doing so yourself unless he asks you to.”
We place our empty glasses down at the same time and a mellow glow steals over me.
“What do you think of the sherry?” He refills our glasses.
“It’s the best I’ve ever had.” If the truth be known, I’ve never tasted sherry before. It does kindle the veins though, like the mild fire of wine.
“Not the very best, but ’twill do.” We reach for our glasses simultaneously.
Mountjoy lifts the bottle with his left hand and studies the label. “The great-great-grandson of the González and I roomed together at Magdalen.”
“You roomed together at maudlin? Did others room at melancholia and moribundity?”
He stops, drains his glass, and settles his chin into cupped hands.
“Magdalen College . . . Oxford? M-A-G”—he wags his head with each letter—“D-A-L-E-N?”
“Ohhhh, so it’s Mary Maudlin now, is it?”
“Yehhhs. And it’s been that way for seven hundred and thirteen years. You’d better stick with me, old boy, or your music-hall act will make you comic relief in this domain.”
“Isn’t Maudlin,” I say casually, as if I’ve always pronounced it that way, “Oscar Wilde’s college?”
“It was. He’s been dead for some time now.”
“True. But his spirit lingers on. I can see it in you.” I laugh freely, this time drawn toward the moose-like features of Mountjoy’s wife.
He notices. “That’s Priscilla—a woman as purebred as one’s likely to find among the upper class in times like these. In fact, one might even say her beauty lies in her genealogy. Nevertheless, approved by M’mah, whose standards are, shall we say, imposing.” He looks back at me. “I say, before we go any further, why, may I ask, do you wear those hideous glasses?”
“I have to. They’re necessary because of an eye disease which happens to bear the same initials as your chairman, BEB. Extreme light sensitivity, old boy.”
Mountjoy clears his throat. “Nothing, my dear boy, nothing is more vulgar than an American attempting to speak like an Englishman. Now, whatever this illness requiring such obscene spectacles may be, let me advise you to alter its name.”
“But BEB is the acronym for its name. Benign essential blepharospasm. Do you want me to choke on that each time I describe it?”
“Yehhhs, precisely. Either that or simply refer to it as DMZ or LTD or DOA, any variant of your choice, but not—I repeat, not—BEB. There are those in our department who look upon our chairman rather unfavorably. Bertie is well aware of this, and it fuels his paranoia. We can’t have BEB living in fear that some malcontent will make a malicious analogy between your affliction and Bertie’s stewardship of the department.
“Furthermore, I’m numbered among his favorites, which yields advantages, none of which I’m prepared to relinquish. And, I daresay, I suspect you don’t really need to wear those preposterous eyeglasses at all . . . do you?”
I fidget and Mountjoy takes notice of my distress.
“I withdraw the question,” he says with a rueful grin. “Furthermore, and upon due reflection, under no circumstances should you discard the glasses; just your explanation for them.”
“They”—he points to my glasses—“are, in any event, of use to you and hence to us.”
“I think you’re supposed to brief me on procedures and protocol,” I say, attempting to redirect the conversation.
“Procedures yes, protocol no. Learning our modus operandi will allow you to conduct your business in a more proficient and less taxing manner. I can be of help there. Genteel behavior is a byproduct of breeding. Unfortunately, no one can help you in that respect. I can say this, however: your year here will be a painful ordeal if you intend to say and do the right thing. Simply put, you will never succeed in acquiring social graces.
“Just bear in mind at all times that you’re only an American. Therefore, aside from certain extremities—for example, sodomizing one of your male students while class is still in session—the more barbarically you behave, the more likely you’ll find yourself well received here.”
“I get it. The more asinine I act, the more it reassures all parties concerned I’m exactly what I claim to be, an American, and therefore nothing to concern themselves with.”
“Precisely. And you need not, for the most part, act. Just . . . ehhh . . . be yourself. You might, of course, occasionally speak a bit more like Humphrey Bogart or Edward G. Robinson. And . . . oh yes, do smoke a cheap cigar now and then.
“The purpose in all this is for you to embody the image of the American we British have come to hold dear to our hearts and loathe at the same time. And, in a similar vein,” he gestures toward my clothes, “let’s not ignore the advantage of being oafishly shabby. Thus, for the most part, almost anything unwonted you do will be welcome.”
“What, may I ask, prompted you to speak to me so candidly? Don’t get me wrong, I’m anything but offended. I just never expected to feel this comfortable with anyone over here, particularly in a university setting.”
“Breeding and instinct, my dear boy, breeding and instinct. And, I might add, the manner in which you inhale the fruit of Andalusian labor, even though sherry is clearly not your customary beverage. I knew by instinct that you were a man”—he contorts his jowls to speak out of the side of his mouth—“wid cobbler’s awls, who spends a night or two at the rub-a-dub.”
Is this local dialect, or is he reciting a fairy tale?
“That’s Cockney, old boy. It means you’ve got balls and obviously have lifted a jar or two hither and thither.”
“I knew that,” I lie.
“Really? Then you must have noticed an exhibition of Bristol Cities when BEB’s secretary, Miss Popper, greeted you.”
“Duck soup,” I say, eager to level the playing field. “Titties. We call them titties.”
The door flies open once again, and a short plump gray-bearded man projects his head into the room. Still grasping the doorknob, he stares down at the floor and says absently, “I beg your pardon, gentlemen. I had no idea you were having breakfast.” He enters the room and closes the door behind him.
Mountjoy, unruffled, says, “Oh, Bertie, this is Dr. Gogarty, our American visitor. Dr. Gogarty, this is Professor Bisgood, Professor Bertram Endicott Bisgood.”
“Well, I’m honored, sir. I’ve heard a great deal about you and, of course, your work on wool combing and worsted spinning in West Yorkshire,” I say. I’d just read the title of his book in the departmental brochure, and noticed it came out in 1937 with no other publications being mentioned except “numerous book reviews in scholarly journals.”
BEB blushes but seems pleased by my reference to his book. He clears his throat, guffaws, and looks down as he rocks slightly back and forth on the balls of his feet. “I’m delighted to make your acquaintance. Mountjoy here should be of considerable help when it comes to policies and procedures and things of that sort, but I may be useful in other matters. Please don’t hesitate to call upon me.”
He looks with curiosity at my glasses. “Is our lighting a trifle too harsh for you, Dr. Gogarty? We can do something about that, I should think.”
“Oh, Bertie,” Mountjoy interjects, “Dr. Gogarty here has a nasty ophthalmic condition making it necessary to wear those beastly spectacles of his. They reduce the impact of light on his retinal equipment.”
“How unfortunate for you, Dr. Gogarty. What affliction is that?”
Mountjoy’s eyes rotate anxiously in my direction.
A moment’s hesitation.
“OPO,” I say, tapping on my lens.
“Really?” the chairman responds. “Be a good chap and remind me what OPO signifies.”
“Obscurum per obscurius.”
“Oh, yes, indeed. OPO.” He nods and waves an open hand as he leaves.
“Hell’s teeth,” Mountjoy gasps. “Where did that come from?”
“I have no idea. Maybe from hell’s teeth, whatever they are.”
“Obscurum per obscurius, eh? If I can still trust my Latin, that phrase means clarifying an obscurity by referring to something even more obscure. How good is your Latin, Gogarty?”
“Fairly good, eh? Well, aren’t you one lucky chap. You see, poor Bertie’s a redbrick product. Any Latin he may’ve learned in grammar school is far too rusty to be of use to him in working out whole phrases. If you want to see BEB nod convulsively, cast an entire sentence at him. But I must warn you, there are those here who are able not only to decipher your feeble subterfuge but will gleefully torment you with Ciceronian queries. Any display of esoteric terminology should be kept to a bare minimum, or you’ll find yourself hanging alongside it.”
“Well, I’ll have to stick to OPO now, won’t I?”
“Better than BEB, my dear fellow, better than BEB. If they ask, tell them you don’t remember the Latin. They’ll find that plausible and amusing. In fact, it’ll help confirm their suspicions of your vacuity. Incidentally, I see you’ve gotten yourself a mackintosh. That’s a wise move in this corner of the world.”
“I see you have one too,” I say agreeably, pointing toward his coat rack.
He smirks. “That, my dear boy, is a Burberry. Do get yourself settled in. I’m off to the south later today on university business, but let’s see each other soon.”
I think I’ll keep my revelation about his recruiting trips to myself for now. It should be deployed at just the right time for maximum impact.
“Oh, before you go, Bertie suggested I ask you for facsimiles of the students’ applications to your program. We’re curious as to who these young people are you’re inflicting upon us. Make no mistake, we’re well aware of what’s going on in that Garden of Eden of yours—race riots, assassinations, druggery, hippies, etcetera, etcetera. And these students are, after all, products of your”—cough, cough—“‘culture’.”
I smile at him savoring his own sarcasm. “Please keep this to yourself, but I know next to nothing about our students. The dean of faculty, who’s also the Grand Wizard of the program, asked me to be resident director at the last minute and delayed passing their applications on to me until just before I left for the airport.”
“Hmm. I’m sorry to tell you this, old boy, but that sounds rather tactical on your dean’s part. So, you know nothing of substance about any of them?”
“I do know one of them, a student of mine. The others? From their applications, two of them may be a problem, but that remains to be seen. They arrive on Monday and I’m meeting them in London. Any suggestions as to where I can have them stay for a few days?”
“Not to worry. I’ll book them at Passfield Hall. It’s part of the London School of Economics and I’ll have an old schoolboy chum there take care of your students. I’ll arrange for you to be at the Hotel Russell. It has tolerable accommodations and is within walking distance of the hall.”
“Shouldn’t I be staying at Passfield Hall with the students?”
“My dear boy, either you adjust to British life or you wallow in the trammels of misguided egalitarianism. Which is it?”
Where does he get these phrases from? “Somehow the former sounds more attractive. I’ll adjust.”
“Splendid. Rather than lowering yourself by living in the fulsome squalor of student barracks, you reside like a gentleman at the Hotel Russell and thereby demonstrate that success breeds privilege and comfort.”
“Any suggestions as to what I should say to them? This is supposed to be an orientation meeting of some sort, and I don’t know a damn thing about England.”
“First of all, keep it just that way. Most of what you think you’ve learned here will be something you’ve misunderstood. Second of all, tell them the best way to experience England is without resorting to some specious tour book as a guide.”
I smile and nod.
He leans over and replenishes our drinks. “What can you tell me about the student whom you know? Perhaps he can offer a clue as to what we’re taking on here.”
I hesitate. “It’s a she. Marthe Fleischmann. Brilliant young woman. She has a 3.97 GPA—that’s a student’s grade-point average, based on a scale of four.”
“Marthe Fleischmann? Hmm, sounds like a New York student. I’m more interested in weaknesses than strengths. Are there any potential problems with her? What does she intend to read?”
“Medieval paleography, Beowulf, Old English, Old Norse, and Medieval Latin, as I recall.”
“So, a glutton for the arcane, eh? Well, her plate’s full. We won’t have to concern ourselves with Miss Fleischmann, will we?”
“I hope not.”
© John Maxwell O’Brien