It was a lot to take in. Six weeks ago, the last place Michael thought he’d be was the mid-West of the USA, a country he’d never visited. But here he was. He’d now got over the jet-lag, given the lecture, survived the reception at the Professor of Economics’ house, and was guest of honour at a restaurant in town.
To judge from the conversation around him as he dug into his crayfish tails, all the academics sitting with their wives at his table were also economists. Which was odd, since it wasn’t Michael’s field at all. He’d come over to talk about ‘Thatcherism and education’ – it was the late 1980s. His topic was the newly introduced English National Curriculum. The élite Illinois economists who had packed the Vance T. Jackson Hall had been expecting something else.
Not that all the talk at his table was about rolling back the state. Not at all. It sparkled on every side. The woman on his right was amazed at all the religious references in Travels with a Donkey.
‘I’ve had my fill of rugged hills and chestnut trees. The nature descriptions did not work for me’.
‘Remember, TV was sparse in – when was it – the 1870s?’ said the man opposite, the one who had hosted the reception. ‘Now we can all see the Cevennes as if we were there.’
‘Is Stevenson much read in the UK?’ someone asked Michael.
He was silent for a moment.
‘Treasure Island,’ he said. ‘For children, I mean. I haven’t read the travel thing myself.’
And he went back to his médaillons de boeuf.
The general conversation went on. It passed from the shenanigans at Michigan State to the prospects of a computer-dominated dystopia, to translations of Tolstoy.
Michael had drunk more wine than he was used to and was feeling drowsy. He hoped he seemed to be listening attentively and was not smiling too much.
Someone was trying to bring him into the discussion of the cultural impact of David Bowie.
‘You must be proud to see England the catalyst for the destruction of fixed gender identities?’ asked a kindly emeritus somewhere on his left.
‘Could be,’ Michael replied. ‘My daughter is keen on him, but beyond that…’
The whirl of opinion, counter claim and wit resumed. It went on past the sorbets and the cheese board and into the brandies and liqueurs. Michael seemed to be forgotten.
Towards the end of the meal, his hosts recalled proprieties.
The senior economics professor asked Michael about his first impressions of the States.
The whole table turned towards him.
‘It’s a nice campus,’ said Michael. ‘The lawns are so big and so well tended. Your Senior Common Room is, I mean, really opulent..’
‘We try. Thank you.’
A younger academic who had crackled through the dinner with sharp comments leant across the table.
‘I’ve been meaning to ask you all evening, Dr Hines, do you think you could tell us the names of five famous Belgians?’
Some of the company looked down. Others, mainly men, fixed on Michael with scarcely concealed amusement.
‘Oh, I don’t know, ‘ he replied. ‘Belgians? Five, you said?’
‘Five,’ said the young man.
‘That’s tricky. Let’s see.’
‘Hercule Poirot? But, I don’t know – do fictitious characters count?’
‘You’re doing great.’
‘Tintin? I think he was Belgian, I don’t know why.’
‘Three to go. Nearly over the hill…’
‘Gosh, it’s so difficult. King Leopold of the Congo??’
‘That’s scraping the bottom, Dr Hines, I have to say.’
Another couple of minutes passed.
‘Oh God, yes. All those painters – Breugel, van Eyck was it?, Bosch… Why didn’t I think of them before? Does it count if they came before Belgium was Belgium, if you see what I mean?
Or am I still on two?’
John White is a writer of short fiction. 'One Evening' is his first published piece.