Saturday, August 01, 2009

Summer School Vignettes

Following on from my account of the OU summer school on quantum mechanics, here are a couple of episodes.

The Lovers

Thursday evening I arrived at the student cafeteria for my evening meal. It was late and the rows of tables were almost deserted. I carried my tray to an empty table and started to eat.

I now noticed a couple two tables up from me. A plump, rather dowdy middle-aged woman with black shoulder-length hair and clothes to match was listening to a man in his late thirties who seemed to me, frankly, rather seedy. Bad hair and teeth, pinched appearance, anoraky clothes in the height of unfashion, he was describing a novel he was reading.

“It’s about this balloon which gets swept away ... the hero gets out of his car and chases after the rope, along with some other people ... it gains height and someone gets killed ... later the hero is stalked by one of the other guys ... it’s brilliantly written, you don’t know if the stalker is real or the hero is having some kind of breakdown ...”

And meanwhile the plain woman is asking dumb questions, like ‘what d’you mean, a balloon?’

I recognise this book of course, “Enduring Love” by Ian McEwan. And the guy is right, it’s very well written. I continue to eat, curious as to where this conversation is going.

And now he’s saying “I hope you don’t mind me sitting here talking to you, you know, I do like you, it’s why I made a point of sitting next to you yesterday” and she’s demurring in a quiet, apologetic voice and he’s continuing in that whiny, insistent, passive-aggressive voice “you would have said if you were uncomfortable, wouldn’t you, but if you are, you only have to say ...”

At this point, to avoid vomiting into a bucket, I made a hasty departure.

The Odd Couple

I had noticed these two at the very first lecture six days ago. Sat two rows in front of me, the barrel-shaped 18 stone giant with the bullet head and CSI tee-shirt was impossible to ignore, unlike his thin and sleazy companion, with his receding hair, insurance salesman appearance, 1960s slacks and polyester shirt. What was it that bound this strange pair together? And why would the bouncer be studying quantum physics?

My curiosity deepened when I observed that the bouncer attended lectures only erratically. He was often late, and then he’d pop in and out. Perhaps he’s a confirmed smoker, I thought.

Friday morning is the last day of the school and the lecture room was sparsely filled at 9 a.m. for an optional problem-solving session. I was at the back when the big guy and his whippet partner came in and sat, as usual, a few rows in front. It was very quiet and I was surprised to hear the bruiser quietly giving instructions to his partner. “You’re to stay here, and after the coffee break there’s a lecture and wrap-up which you’re to be here for. When it finishes, don’t move and I’ll collect you.” The seedy guy absorbed this with a weary, resigned air and then the bouncer departed – no doubt to make ‘arrangements’.

Q. So what was all that about? Perhaps you might take a moment to speculate?

A. How about a guest of Her Majesty, let out to experiment under supervision from a bit of private muscle?