Time passed. Aside from my meeting with the Master and a couple victories at pub quizzes, nothing of note happened. (These wins were a rare occurrence, as every subsequent time we came in near to the bottom of the rankings—this may have been because The Drunkard started coming along, shooting vodka and whiskey, insulting the landlord, and getting us kicked out halfway through.) I went to courses, went on a date—incredibly unsuccessful, she found out that I was Jewish and spent the time asking me if I felt put upon in this country and if she had offended me in asking the question in the first place—all in all, a thoroughly normal week. Oh yes, and, every morning, The Drunkard and I collected The Stalker and formed a sort of military march down towards the humane shelter. By the weekend, he had served five days of his sentence.
Saturday rolled around, and in the afternoon, we all met at The Sub-Pope’s Flock for our weekly story session. I saw that The Stalker had taken up his usual seat in the back corner, and The Traveler was sitting there with him, doing his best to strike up conversation. I could hear The Stalker’s exaggerated slurps from the entrance, and I knew that, try as he might, The Traveler would get no real response from The Stalker. I bought my beer and sat down at the table. “Heya, Traveler,” I said.
“Afternoon, Narrator. How’s things?”
“Things are things,” I said. It was a response I’d perfected over the years and, more often than not, people thought I was just being a smartass instead of answering their question. While that was often true, it was also true that I was simply trying to make a statement that things were the way they were and could not be any other way. (In my opinion, it was a brilliant philosophical statement that went over most people’s heads.) “The Drunkard and I have been taking The Stalker along to volunteering jobs at the RSPCA shelter in town.”
The Traveler nodded. “That’s what he told me.”
“Apparently,” I said, “he gets on fantastically with the dogs there.”
“Dogs are simple,” said The Stalker. “Once you know how to get them to like you, then you control them.”
That was one of his responses that, while true, still had the effect of sending a mind-numbing chill down one’s spine. I still often wonder if he practiced his tone of voice in front of a mirror, just to get the proper cadence right before he went out talking to people and scaring the crap out of them.
“Hey, Narrator,” said The Traveler. “Let’s go outside for a sec, I have to ask you something.”
“Secrets,” said The Stalker, “don’t make friends, Traveler. They don’t make friends at all.”
The Traveler put on the epitome of an innocent smile, the sort that said, “Why would you say that? Why in this, the best of all possible worlds, would I have an ulterior motive,” and meant it. “Hah, no secret here, my friend. I just thought that you were enjoying your cider so much it’d be a shame to break you away from it.”
The Stalker nodded.
The Traveler and I stood up and walked outside.
The square was full of people clutching shopping bags. Most of them looked around them like they were lost, while a few loitered around not really moving with any sort of purpose. It was the first legitimately sunny day I’d seen that week, and though it was still chilly outside—about 50 degrees Fahrenheit—it was better than it had been in the morning. The Traveler rolled a cigarette, and offered me the tobacco and paper to make my own.
“No thanks,” I said, “I don’t smoke.”
“Good call. Terrible for your health. For example, I can no longer run marathons.”
“You used to run marathons?”
The Traveler grinned. “No, but I know that the option has been ripped away from me. So, what I asked you out here for was to see if you heard what The Stalker did to the rabbit.”
I nodded. “Indeed I had.”
“What do you think should be done?”
“Well, we’re already punishing him, in a way. And, if what The Drunkard said about the French almost decapitating him was true, then I’m certain The Stalker ise scared off from doing anything like that again. After all, if you were taken from your home by a couple of angry Frenchman, what would you do?”
The Traveler thought for a moment. “Declare war on them. That’d scare em away.”
We burst into laughter, causing quite the scene in the tranquil square across from the Cathedral.
The Writer walked up in his usual corduroy jacket and flat cap ensemble, saw the cigarette in The Traveler’s hand, and said, “Ah, Traveler, do you mind if I join you in a smoke?”
“G’head,” said The Traveler.
The Writer then pulled from one of his inner jacket pockets a corn-cob pipe, packed it, and lit it. I thought about asking him why he had chosen to smoke from a corn-cob pipe instead of something a bit more conventional in the UK, but I figured that The Writer would get defensive, and I wasn’t feeling up to the aftermath.
“Anyway,” The Traveler said, finishing his cigarette, “I was thinking that, this Wednesday, we could all go up to London and hit up a couple of the galleries or museums. It hit me yesterday that we hadn’t actually done anything as a group of mates beyond sit around the pub and attempt to tell stories; and if you ask me, that’s a damn shame.”
“I say, that’s a great idea,” I said. “A day trip to London might be just the thing a few of us need to break the monotony of going to courses, wandering around town, and knocking back beer to kill the time. What do you say, Writer?”
The Writer snorted. “I say that galleries are a waste of time, but, as I haven’t any plans for Wednesday, I might as well come.”
“Glad to have such an enthusiastic member on the expedition,” The Traveler said. “I believe that The Narrator and I shall head back inside and await the other members of our group. See you in a few.”
The Writer nodded and turned towards the Cathedral, affecting a pose that I’m sure he thought was erudite.
We walked back in the pub and sat at the table with The Stalker, still contentedly watching life drift by through the front windows. After a minute, The Writer walked in with The Student. They were chatting about different translations of Madame Bovary—a book which I had to read twice for two of my classes in undergrad, a requirement that led me to wish for sweet death both times. “And I say,” said The Student, “that it stands as a solid piece of literature. Maybe not the best, as you put it, but definitely solid.”
“You fool,” exclaimed The Writer, taking his drink from the bar to our table. “Just look at the emotional anguish felt in the story. The anguish! No one’s done that like Flaubert did.”
We were spared from further commentary by the arrival of The Drunkard, who stumbled in through the front door and ordered a whiskey. He joined us at the table, wearing clothes that looked like they hadn’t been changed in a few days, blinked his bloodshot eyes, and said, “Hi there.”
“What’s up, Drunkard?” asked The Student.
“Drank three bottles of wine last night. Still drunk when I woke up this morning, figured could keep on going.” He took a drink and hiccupped.
“Well,” said The Traveler, “before we begin our tale for the day, I thought I’d broach the subject of going to London on Wednesday so that we could all hit up a few galleries or museums or whatever, as a group.”
“Hit up some bitches!” shouted The Drunkard.
“Well, yes, if you want to. Anyway, who’s next?”
The Student cleared his throat. “I’ll go.”
“Yay,” we all said. It was one of those moments where a group of minds synchs up and, in doing so, sends a shiver down everyone’s spine.
“I should first apologize for my actions the past couple of days. I’ve been going through a rough time lately, and I sought solace at the bottom of the bottle.” He wrinkled up his nose and cleared his throat. “I found that once pink bits started appearing in my vomit, I should probably stop for a while. You see, literary criticism is a soul-crushing business, and having to read a significant amount of it over the course of a couple of days tends to lead one into either alcoholism or madness.”
Ah, well, I guess I was wrong about his troubles with women.
“At any rate,” he continued, “I was inspired to create the following story after thinking a little bit about what goes on in academic discourse, as a rule. It is, you see, a fictionalization of what I believe to be the method of having a discussion about any subject in the ivory tower.”