Updated: Aug 28
A story from Oxford written for the Mogford Competition
Copyright © Peter Sissons 2023
Some obnoxious fellow stole my trusty bike! The result of this theft caused me to be on foot and in a hurry. I crashed through the wrought-iron gates beneath the bridge over Logic Lane and tripped over the ancient pavement-level stone protecting University College's cornerstones from long-gone wagon wheels.
I spilt on to the High, attempting to make good time for an early lunch get-together – an appointment with an old friend from Cheltenham at the Quod restaurant that lay a few steps
away. After that, I had to make a two-o'clock Classics meeting at Balliol.
In an instant, the race to keep my lunch date with Maxine stopped by a spectacular collision – a full broadside into two middle-aged men that swiftly ended what seemed to be their heated pavement argument.
My ears heard a stream of well-deserved old-school expletives from what had been two elderly gentlemen, who were now sprawled horizontally across the pavement. My lithe frame sprang to the vertical in a micro-second while attempting to balance my casualties' curses with hastily concocted apologies.
To cut a long collision short, Mr Otsira from Montreal and Mr Senem from Turkey had it in their hearts to forgive me for ending, as it was, a spat concerning a specific ancient Greek tale. This surprising rapid change of feelings happened when I assisted each fuming gentleman to the vertical.
Thankfully, I transformed their enthusiasm from trying to shorten my existence to chatting with the utmost civility. This instant change came about as a result of two reasons: one, my new acquaintances accepted an invitation to join me for lunch at the Quod, and two – praise be to God – I informed them that I was a Classic graduate; this was the cherry on the top for the two gentlemen that completely dissolved the memory of our sudden coming together.
Dusted down and with no injuries or bruises to speak of, we headed for the nearby Quod restaurant. During this short walk, the gentlemen's argument soon became clear: Mr Otsira did not believe the details of an ancient Greek tale Mr Senem had been telling him.
I pulled open the Quod's entrance glass doors, hoping my new companions would patch up their differences and realise they were in a bus, elegant restaurant. I had the distinct feeling that seating them down as soon as possible would avoid a second coming together at the establishment's small lectern reception desk.
I scanned the tables, unable to see my Cheltonian friend. I puffed out resignation that I had to sit alone with my warring factions before Maxine arrived to help me bring peace to the table.
A server in a crisp white blouse and black-aproned skirt weaved us through the tables to a spot under a large oil painting of a girl in a blue dress moving a pawn of a giant chess set. After seating us, she asked us for our drink order, which Mr Otsira and Mr Senem promptly ignored.
I had to sort them out!
‘Okay, gentlemen!’ I asked purposefully, momentarily halting the chatter from the surrounding tables. ‘We have to choose our drinks; shall I get a bottle of Argentian Malbec to see us through our meal?’ I hoped that my confident suggestion might simplify our drinking arrangements.
I was surprised to receive a resounding and unanimous 'Oh, yes. What a splendid idea!' and 'It is time for a spot of drinky-poos, isn't it?'. These agreements to my wine choice ended with, 'And we can continue our debate over a delicious red!'.
Oh no, you can't, I thought. I jumped in to command the direction of future conversations. ‘Excellent! A bottle of Malbec it is. And now, gentlemen, it is time to shake hands and make up.’
I heard a resounding ‘What?’ in an astounded tone.
‘Yes, I want you to discuss in a civil manner whatever you were arguing about in the street and at this table.’
Both men wore quizzical looks questioning my suggestion, and in near unison, they declared, ‘Arguing? We weren't arguing - we were debating!’
‘Oh, I'm sure you were. However, Mr Otsira, why don't you believe the story Mr Senem is telling you?’ I could sense Mr Senem gathering steam to interrupt. I stopped him in his tracks. ‘No, Mr Senem, let Mr Otsira have his say!’
The table went icy quiet momentarily, and then Mr Otsira announced with dramatic zeal, ‘His story is entirely wrong! Up the creek! Full of holes! Arguing that the unnamed traveller – the narrator – in Metamorphoses is Orestes! Hah! He is from The Libation Bearers. The traveller's name was Lucius! And Rahim calls himself an expert. Huh! He even suggests that in Book Four of Metamorphoses, the thieves kidnap a rich young woman called Athena, when her name was Charite.’ He folded his arms and dropped them to his chest as if to say, 'So there!'.
At that moment in the sparring match, our Malbec arrived and was poured with great aplomb by Philippe from Lyon.
Next, Samantha arrived to take our food order and surprised us all by being a rocket-engineering student from California.
The next part of the story - the meal - would bore you to death if I described three mouth-watering, flavoursome and exquisitely cooked courses served by Samantha. However, I won't since only one of us noticed the food. I will only describe my wonderful meal, which had an unfortunate background symphony of irksome tennis insults served by Clarence – Mr Otsira, and Rahim – Mr Senem. Luckily, I could still savour my duck and chicken liver parfait and date chutney starter. After the chicken thighs were done to perfection, the desert was the finale in many respects – as I swallowed the last morsel of my magnificent warm rice pudding and mulled wine pears, an unexpected sound brought me back from food tranquillity to reality with a bang.
Without warning, Mr Rahim made our glasses, the remaining cutlery, our insides and the surrounding customers jump, dramatically thumping the tablecloth. He then let out a hearty laugh before enthusiastically declaring, ‘Ha, ha, ha! Got you, my old friend!’
Eyebrows rose, and confused expressions appeared on our face as Mr Senem continued his animated announcement. ‘April Fools, Clarence! I have got you fair and square today!’
‘What do you mean? You haven't got me! How on earth do you imagine you have me of all people?’ Clarence questioned, angry at the thought of falling into his friend's trap – without understanding what it was.
‘Oh, Clarence, my dear friend. Don't you see? Understand? I've been pulling your leg about the names in my Classic Greek tragedy. In Book Eleven of Metamorphoses, the story finishes with the goddess Isis, appearing to Lucius, not—'
I interrupted his explanation.
‘Rahim,’ He turned to me, his cheeks increasing in colour from me sabotaging a special moment of triumph over his friend. ‘I'm afraid you're far too late for April Fools' Day to be valid – it's nearly an hour since midday, and I'm sure you know that the tradition states it’s noon when your joke has to end.’
Rahim stared at me with squinted eyes and pursed lips as Clarence's countenance lit up with satisfaction as he savoured saying, ‘Well, my dear old friend, it seems the joke is on you! Even the book Philogelos had better jokes than your ineffective attempt!’
Clarence pushed back his seat, stood up and slapped his friend's back, and then he pointed at his naked left wrist, saying, ‘Better luck next year, my dear old friend. You are getting absent-minded; please remember to wear your wristwatch next time!’
We all began to laugh in unison, even though Rahim eventually saw the amusing side of his timing error and rubbed his bare wrist.
I peeked at my watch; I saw forty-five minutes left before my meeting at Balliol. After listening to the charming-duelling duo, I had to fill the time with some fun.
Then I saw Maxine. She waved at me while she made her way to our table.
After apologising for being late for our date, I introduced her to Rahim and Clarence. Then a brainwave hit me.
‘Maxine, I have just sat through an April Fools' Day Classic Greek tragedy.’ The perpetrators tittered. ‘And, I think we should follow it with an analysis of the lovely and thought-provoking oil painting above us – try and describe the meaning and story behind the subject of the picture. What do you think?’ Everyone looked up at the painting.
‘That's a splendid idea, Luke, my boy,’ agreed Clarence. ‘What do you think, Rahim? Just look at what is happening in the painting; on the face of it, the subject is full of promise to win the game, with one weak and measly pawn beginning a fight to the death!’
‘Absolutely!' said Rahim with enthusiasm. ‘Let's get on with it – how exciting! Top-notch suggestion.’
Maxine was game for a rapid-fire painting investigation. ‘Well, I didn't think I would be here as an art expert, but let's have a shot.’
‘Great,’ I beamed. ‘Let's start. Maxine, the chess game, what do you think it saying – if anything? Has it got a message?’
‘Mmm… I can see a woman starting a chess game with larger-than-life carved-wooden pieces – the same size one would find in a garden. But something strange is happening with part of her queen – the woman’s arm is somehow through i,t and the piece is the same blue colour as her dress – it appears camouflaged. However, two things contradict this transformation: one, there is a shadow of the blue queen outline on the blue material of the dress, and two, below her arm, is the real piece, shown in the proper timber colour. Mmm… What is that saying, everyone? I haven't a clue.’
‘Well, to me, it is obvious. Clarence and Luke, surely both of you can see who this chess piece queen is playing?’ challenged Rahim.
‘Ah. You are trying to usurp me again,’ spluttered Clarence. ‘You're not going to get me this time, my friend!’
‘So, who is she playing, then?’ demanded Rahim.
I knew I had to intervene to stop another battle from commencing. ‘Now then, gentlemen. You are both heading for a clash over the subject of this painting. Tell us, Rahim, what can you see? And explain it without saying it is obvious!"
‘Luke, my dear boy,’ Rahim began deliberately, ‘the queen is hiding most of her body as part of the lady's dress or top – as if she is behind a sheer, slightly transparent curtain – she is covered but visible. The bottom of her body is still somewhat apparent – the wooden base of the piece – but the rest is naked for the viewer to see. She is—'
I knew Clarence was biting at the bit to interrupt, and he did.
‘She is the wife - the queen – of Candaules, king of Sardes, undressing and then—'
Rahim exploded. ‘Clarence! You've ruined my explanation! Typical of you to take my line away. Yes, it is the wife of Candaules, having undressed and exposed her beauty too—'
‘Gyges!’ Clarence enjoyed blurting out.
Rahim was about to rebuff him once more when Maxine ended the new battle by asking, ‘Please, gentleman, what are you talking about? Who are Candaules, Gyges and this naked queen and part of this women's dress above me? All I see is a chess game with a strange partly-blue Queen. Is there such a complex meaning to this painting? Clarence, explain what you are both saying - please?’ Rahim scowled.
‘My dear, Maxine, I'm sure, and I believe Rahim thinks too, that the painting represents the Greek tragedy called Gyges. The star of the tale was the king's bodyguard, Gyges. For some reason that has always been beyond me, the king convinced himself that Gyges should see the naked beauty of his wife – the queen. Silly boy. He got himself—'
Maxine surprised me by interrupting Clarence. ‘Since I think you understood Rahim's explanation about the painting, I think Rahim can finish it. Yes?’ There was a resignation sigh from Clarence. Maxine nodded at Rahim to begin.
‘It's straightforward. The queen was so shocked at what her husband had done that she gave Gyges two courses of action to right the wrong: one, to kill himself, or two, to kill the king and become the ruler and marry the wronged queen. Guess in which direction he went?’ He laughed.
Maxine spoke again. ‘Well, I have no idea what both of you have been saying about this painting. I'm a mathematician, and it's all Greek to me!’
There was an eruption of laughter from the four of us and enthusiastic clapping of hands at the painting, which thoroughly confused all the surrounding tables' occupants.
I checked my watch and saw that time was marching on. I decided to wind up the meal by standing and thanking Clarence and Rahim for making the time at the Quod utterly unique and memorable. Penultimately, I kissed the back of Maxine's hand to show my appreciation for her short but much-needed presence and support at our rumbustious Classics table.
I finished my meal-closing speech by adding to our impromptu admiration for the chess game painting by asking everyone to stand, raise their glasses and bestow a hearty toast to the Lady in Blue.
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