Thursday, December 27, 2012

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Twenty

Redpath museum
Duncan stood on the sidewalk looking towards the limestone outlines of the Redpath Museum, its Classical Revival architecture rising up in the fog like a Temple on a Greek mountain side. The pediment, the medallions, the columns, and the peaks of the transepts revealed themselves in the slowly shifting air as if it were an art history slide show and he was a sleepy undergraduate. As he approached the massive stone front staircase, he managed to glimpse a figure looking out of the large half-open door A tall bearded man in a long coat. But only for an instant as the fog thickened and shifted.

Of course, he should look up Tom, Tom Culacino. He could ask him to look at the strange manuscript he found under the kitchen cabinets. A childhood school friend, and former drummer with The Splices, and now a Professor and researcher in computing, Tom had done well. As Duncan stood looking towards the Museum sheltering in the fog, he recalled the vivid memory of a school visit. It must have been 1968 or 1969. They were running around the upper floor and came up to the dark suited legs of a museum guard. Their teacher had not been amused. Duncan's memory was of dark wood, glass cases, and natural light coming from the windows above, with dusty scents from around the world, a confusion of decay and stasis, a building steeped in the past. The enormous, to them, Dinosaur, and the other natural, anthropological and archaeological relics had overwhelmed their senses with wonder. Duncan turned around and made his way back towards the science building. Tom's research in higher computing was completely over Duncan's head, but he liked Tom for his quirky sense of humour, bizarre interests and complete knowledge of the latest and obscurest music. His work involved concepts such as compiler optimizations, method-level speculations, return value predictions, speculative multithreadings, and phase-based adaptive recompilations which were as foreign to Duncan as perhaps false band, doublure, cocked, tipped-in, rubricated, and cancel leaf were to Tom.

Academic terminologies were rife. As he approached the science building, he remembered flipping through some published papers in post-graduate psychology and truly only finding common ground in the syntax. He had been young, and briefly dating a slightly older secretary in the post-graduate department of psychology, his mind only familiar with basic psychology terms and Jungian and Freudian concepts. When she gave him a tour of the labs, he had been deeply disturbed by the sight of white mice with small tubes connected to their open scalps, non-voluntary candidates wedded chemically to an instrumentality of knowledge, an instrumentality that altered forever his view of the discipline. Not a Freudian slip in sight. Bio-chemistry had taken over. That had been in the late 1970s. Duncan could only imagine what they were doing presently. Perhaps even the syntax was beyond him now.

Walking down the corridor towards Tom's office, he remembered it was Monday, and the wizard was unlikely to be found. He knocked on his door anyway. No response. Two more knocks. Not a sound. Back at the elevator Duncan noticed an associate of Tom's, Frank Woo, coming towards him.
“Dunc isn't it?”
“That's right,” Duncan said smiling, acknowledging Tom's nickname for him, one discovered from an Aussie song called Duncan.
“If you're looking for Tom, he's in the cafeteria. I think he's working on a two cup problem.”
“Oh, thanks Frank.
He spotted Tom at a corner table, earbuds leading to his jacket pocket, his fingers tapping on his cup.
“Hi Tom.”
Tom nodded and smiled at Duncan. “FIDO,” he said.
Duncan raised his eyebrows and sat down. “Fido?”
“Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation. We could use it today don't you think.”
“Yes, sounds like a plan.”
“Wouldn't work on the FOG though.”
“First Osbourne Group, FOG. Yes, indeed. The old CP/M operating system. Brings you back doesn't it?”
Duncan groaned and rolled his eyes.
“I like the side burns. Quite . . . fetching,” Duncan said, trying not to stare.
“Do you know that Luther Wright and the Wrongs might be huge if they were called Luther Wrong and the Wrights. Just a little algorithm fun. So, Dunc, what brings you round the numbers side of things?”
“I have this odd manuscript made up of numbers and letters. It mimics a text, but it is essentially gibberish to me. I was wondering if you could take a quick look and give me your opinion.”
“Sure, why not. Doesn't look like you have anything with you though. Is it in your memory? They used to prize their memories back in the day.”
“What day would that be?”
“That would be the . . . Medieval day and earlier.”
“Sorry. Very little room left up here. No vacancy. Or too much depending on your position. I just happened to be passing the Redpath Museum on my way to the library on bookish bus, when I remembered you.”
“I haven't been there in years. I wonder how the stuffed lion is holding up."
"Yeah, I forgot about him. Probably a little faded, frayed and forlorn."
"That sounds like you're quoting from one of your early songs. So, how is Amelia?”
“Good, good. Unfortunately, this text is beyond her translation skills. How's Milly?”
“Thriving Dunc, thriving. Well, anytime you have the thing, just drop it by the office. No guarantees I'll be able to decipher it, but I will give it a look over.”
“Give it the 1, 2, 3 eh? Great, many thanks mate. All the best to Milly.”
“All our best to the lovely Amelia.”

Duncan left Tom with his fingers tapping to Luther Wright and the Wrongs, and whatever two cup problem, paradox or perplexity troubled him.


Rebecca Haffner heard her name mentioned, then her assistant saying, 'just a minute, and I will check.' Interruptions were unusual on Monday mornings. Unwelcome as well. Robert, her assistant, knocked lightly on the half-open door and popped his head in.
“There is a Duncan Strand here asking if he could possibly see you for a few minutes.”
Nodding towards her book and paper covered desk as if hearing news of great import, she said “Show him in.” She leaned back in her black leather chair and rocked imperceptibly as she heard the shuffling of feet coming towards her door.
“My apologies for upsetting the flow of your morning Rebecca.”
“Not at all. Have a seat. It's not often I see you without your book bag. Haven't lost it have you?”
“No, nothing like that.”
“So, what can I help you with?”
“You are the most knowledgeable book person I know . . .”
“Ah, flattery is often the precursor to a demand.”
Duncan smiled. “More my appreciation of you knowledge than flattery. But, yes, there is a request. I have come across an unusual watermark that I have been unable to trace with my personal reference books, and knowing of your . . yes, more appreciation, extensive research in such areas, you might be able to bring it to light for me.”
“Do you have it with you?”
After telling Rebecca the details of how he found it bound with the cash book, he gave her his finely drawn facsimile.
“And this is half of the watermark is it?”
“Yes, I believe so.”
“De umbris idearum,” she said almost to herself.
“I'm sorry Rebecca, what was that?”
“Early watermarks were more than trade signs, they were seen as thought-fossils, thought-crystals, hieroglyphics many of which held significance. Cryptograms and ciphers in the texts were common.” She paused and put the paper down. “What type of paper are we talking about?”
“I would say a thick coarse paper, probably around 1600 or so. That's what I feel.”
Rebecca nodded her head.
“Hmm, I can't be certain based on the little before me, but it is likely Bohemian, possibly Oppenheim. The watermark is unusual. It is possible the text is a . . . Rosicrucian publication."
It was Duncan's turn to nod his head, his eyebrows raised in surprise.
“Not quite my area of expertise,” he said, “but that is certainly interesting to hear. I shall do some research.”
“Is your alumni membership up to date?”
“Yes, yes, it is.”
“Good, the macro and the microcosm of the world is at your fingertips,” she said gesturing above and around her to the library that was her daily abode.
"Many thanks Rebecca, I will keep you abreast of any developments."
"Bonne chance mon ami."

Duncan stood in the elevator descending from the rare books department, checking his watch and thinking his time was limited. As the door opened on the ground floor, he recognized the man who often sat on the park bench near the restaurant, now well-dressed and coiffed, walking towards the passage to the undergraduate library. Duncan followed trying to avoid looking at him. Perhaps he was correct in thinking him a student in a sociological experiment. The man made his way to the elevator of the Redpath library and pushed the button. He turned about and looked around and stared at Duncan who walked up to stand nearby checking his watch again. Together with two other students, they rose to the third floor, Duncan waited for the other three to disembark before following. They each made their way into the library like pinballs in a game, dispersing in different directions by the force of their necessities. Duncan had rarely used this part of the library but he found it much improved since his days as a student. The mystery man made his way into the book stacks as if he knew his way. Duncan stood at a catalogue computer and, trying to think of something to look up, typed in Rosicrucian watermarks. The man emerged with a number of large books and made his way behind Duncan towards the comfortable chairs near the windows. Duncan glanced over. Art books. Late Renaissance art. Bronzino. 

© ralph patrick mackay

Photograph from the McCord Museum

No comments: