Author : Martin Sumner
McCloud joined me at the round table in the bay window of the Red Café. I was on my second double espresso. The day was just beginning to come into focus. “Good morning, Professor.” He put his cup of hot water on the table before asking if it was alright to join me. A rhetorical question.
“Good morning Mister McCloud. Are you well today?”
He had been around the Red for about a month. I’m an early morning regular, and you pretty soon know the whole early morning community, by sight if not name. The daily doubles, like me: people with time to start their day slowly. The quick coffee crew: fuelling up before office hours. The takeouts: no time to stop. Fairweather visitors. Pre-shoppers. Post-school runners. Occasionals.
“Excellent, Professor. Positively excellent.” He craned his neck, eyes on my book. I held the paperback up for him, to take in the title. “Fahrenheit 451. A little light reading today, I see!”
McCloud had soon become a recognisable regular. One of the Sociables – I’d watched him make his way around to me after a couple of weeks, via others of the Red’s early morning community. I knew he would get to me, eventually. It had taken a couple of weeks. He was easy enough company.
“My guilty pleasure, I confess. It does one good to escape the strictures of academe once in a while. Now, what’s all this positivity about? You seem in fine fettle this morning.”
McCloud took a small silver container out of his pocket, something like a snuff box. Flipping open it’s lid, he pinched a sliver of dried plant out of the box and dropped it into his cup of hot water. “Ginger root,” he once explained to me, “for flavour and stimulation.” It didn’t look like ginger to me, but I am not a botanist.
“My last day in town, Professor. Tonight, I set off on my journey home. Now, I have enjoyed my stay here, make no mistake. But I look forward to my own bed, my own comforts. And of course, as an adventurer, I love the journey, too.”
He had excellent English, with that American twang of a well-educated non-native English speaker. It was difficult to place, and I, so early in the morning, had been rather disinclined to ask. Until then. It felt the situation had been rather contrived for me to ask that one specific question.
“Well, Mister McCloud, I shall miss our early morning, um, social time. And where is home, exactly?”
He smiled. “Exactly? Well, that is a big question, not easily answered. Impossibly distant, shall we say.”
I wasn’t in the mood for such games. In our previous conversations McCloud had been direct, surprisingly so. I assumed he was feeling playful as a result of the joy for his homeward destiny, wherever that might be, but I couldn’t match him on that.
“Impossibly distant? I don’t quite follow. Please, indulge me. My geography isn’t so bad you know.”
“Professor Cranham, I’m not here by chance. At this table, now. I’m here to see you, to discuss an opportunity with you. Could you give me a little of your time, do you think?”
He called it The Opportunity of a Lifetime. I had never pegged him for a fantasist. A reasonably well-known professor of linguistics, I’ve been head-hunted before. But this was surely a joke. Of course I dismissed him out of hand.
Nowadays, when I look at the night sky, I wonder.