Professor Hengist Morton Embry was at the wheel, gliding along through Fort Lauderdale, pointing out the sights to his English visitor.
'This is the place if you want to eat fish. Absolutely first rate. I was there two -- three nights ago, with Bobby Strawson and her crowd. Try the dolphin. Not the mammal, the fish. Go upstairs for better service. There's a waitress without a bra, and they serve a good Australian Shiraz.'
Gordon Levine was impressed. He would not have expected such information, so crisply delivered, from an English professor of Stochastic Sociology -- even if there was such a thing -- in an English town. Embry had facts spilling from his fingertips.
Fort Lauderdale slid by, malls, slummy bits, houses of the wealthy situated on well-tended canals. Levine was paying his first visit to Florida, and liking it. The month was March, the temperature was warm. He had already taken a swim in the hotel pool and exchanged a few words with the influential Bobby Strawson, organizer of the ASSA conference. He was impressed by the air of efficiency and glamour exuded by la Strawson. Equally, he was impressed by the charisma of this important professor, who had taken time out to show a stranger the town.
Embry was the sort of scholar referred to as outgoing, though Levine had glimpsed a more thoughtful person beneath the surface.
He had already given Levine some insights into other members of the ASSA, the American Stochastic Sociology Association.
Embry was an untidy man, moderately massive, given to large ties which hung over one shoulder of his cotton jacket like the tongues of wolfhounds. Academically, he was considered brilliant; yet he could schedule a neat eight-stream conference in a matter of moments, totting up all the scholars involved, friend and foe, like columns of figures. So why was this paragon accepting a sabbatical year in England at the Anglia University of Norwich, opening a new department? This was the question Levine put to his companion as they surveyed Fort Lauderdale.
'This mansion with the laburnums we're coming to, that's the Florida home of Jeff Stackpine, the Stackpine Trucks man. You think I'm side-tracking my career trajectory by taking off for a year? I don't read it that way. The US needs a breathing space from me. I can do wonderful things in England. They'll name the department after me.' He ground to a belated halt at a red. 'Traffic lights always see me coming. When did I last get a green? It's nature's way of telling me to slow down, I guess.
'Now we're heading for Mount Lauderdale. Have you heard of Mount Lauderdale? It's the highest point in the city, snow on it in the winter. Coaches lose their way and have to be dragged out.'
Levine expressed surprise. But, just as the Americans had their own views of what English weather was like, he had his views on the extremes of the American climate.
They turned into a less elegant road and were passing the Everglades Motel, faced with fake logs. The sign was supported by two fibreglass alligators.
'There you see the real unreal America, Gordy,' said Embry, gesturing. 'The wish to get on, the wish to get off, the longing to have you on, the longing to have it off. See how one of those gators is female -- mammal female, with boobs and blonde hair? It represents some sort of displacement in time as well as space. You clear the everglades, then you fake 'em to get 'em back. Consider the diversity of mentalities in these so-called United States, the sheer diversity of mentalities. Some of us are living, or attempting to live, in the next century, and face up to the demographic conundrums ahead. Others -- don't construe this as an ethnic remark in any way, Gordy, but some of us are still living and thinking last century, and the centuries before that, way back to primitive times, when tribes first wandered into North America.' He knocked significantly at his forehead.
As Embry exchanged an unscholarly word with a driver proceeding in the opposite direction, Levine said, by way of agreement, 'I saw in a recent poll that fifty-five per cent of the population believe the sun goes round the earth, rather than vice versa.'
Embry shot Levine a glance, half-smiling, one eyebrow crooked. 'You mean the other way round, surely? The earth going round the sun?'
'Fifty-five per cent believe it's the other way about. Maybe it was sixty-five.'
'You mean the sun going round the earth?'
'That's what fifty-five per cent believe.'
Embry gave a snort and concentrated on the traffic ahead. Levine saw a muscle in his cheek working, one of the muscles he used for talking; maybe it never rested, even when no speech was forthcoming.
Levine experienced a pang of doubt, sudden as toothache. Could it be that Hengist Morton Embry, founder, president, of the ASSA, was himself one of that fifty-five per cent? Or sixty-five? It couldn't be. Could it?
'Astronomy was never a subject I specialized in,' Embry said. 'But I do know that one American in seven carries a gun in his or her car.'
Levine wanted to explain to him that you did not have to go to university to learn that the earth went round the sun, taking a year to make a complete orbit, because this was one of the known facts you imbibed with your mother's elderberry wine, if not her milk. That there was a whole raft of things, a skein, a web, a map, a safety net, you absorbed like your native language itself, if you were normal, by the time you made your first date, and that that safety net was an indispensable component of -- well, of Western culture. Yet here was this professor of a distinguished Illinois university -- a whole lot of them managed to get down to Florida in March -- who appeared to have doubts regarding a cardinal fact known to ancient Greeks. Levine had on his safety belt in the Toyota; but in the other world, that great nexus of circumstance we call life, there was no safety belt. He was sitting next to an eminent academic who believed the sun was in orbit about the earth.
'Right, Gordy,' Embry said, 'here's Mount Lauderdale coming up.'
He gestured grandly and chuckled. The car was heading up a slight incline. There were trees on either side of the road, expensive properties, a neat waterway, and the slight rise in the road.
'Mount Lauderdale. How d'you like it? All of eighteen feet above sea level. We're a great country for making mountains out of molehills.'
Embry chuckled again. 'Just kidding you before, Gordy. Exercising your British sense of humourE We'd best head back to the conference.'
Embry was a Happy American. It was easy to appear Happy. It was patriotic to be Happy. It was also good business to be Happy. Good business and patriotism went together, and their lubricant was the kind of good humour in which Professor Embry specialized.
Returning to the conference, he drove Levine past The Fronds, a gigantic shopping mall built on adventurous lines, with undulating facades and interior waterfalls. It had been standing half a year, and was due to be pulled down, Embry said, in eighteen months. The carpark beside it was full of cars. Embry took it in with a gesture.
'See that? The Fronds. A fad of yesteryear, but still making millions for a guy I used to know. Sold wallpaper in Denver. We were talking about people wandering into North America thousands of years ago. That's what they came for -- the shopping.'
He told Levine you could eat a good hotdog in The Fronds. Hotdogs went with the good business and the patriotism; hotdogs marked a guy out as a good, average joe, even if he was a professor and president of ASSA.
Levine asked himself why he was thinking in this vein on this Florida afternoon, when palms waved their leaves against the ever-enfolding walls of commerce. Didn't I eat hotdogs myself and without being self-conscious about it? Didn't I succumb to the unconscious pressure of society and present a cheerful demeanour? Wasn't it true that that demeanour became more and more my real self?
Punching a tape into the radio-cassette player, Embry filled the car with quadrophonic sound. Male voices sang: stately, assured, harmonious.
'Recognize it?' Embry asked. 'My passion! Medieval French Gregorian chant. Latin, as you know. A capella. I bought fifty tapes of the stuff when I taught a semester at Toulouse University, France. Can't get enough of it. They say the world lost something when instrumental music was introduced into churches, and I believe 'em. Listen to this OVeni, RedemptorO nowE'
Levine listened. He knew nothing of the subject, had never specialized in it.
They were back at the Hilton in time for the cocktail reception. Traffic was moving steadily up and down Highway One. Planes were landing on time, bars were doing good trade, yachts were docking in expensive marinas. Barbecues were sizzling in yards, evening soaps bubbling on TV screens. Day's end was calm, but alert with promise all over the Sunshine State, even in the senior citizens' condos: time for fun unobtainable in England: the sort of evening you feel you deserve, with the sun skiing through a sky containing only one decorative cloud, positioned so as to grow more golden as the hour slipped by. Happy Hour. Most of the delegates to the conference were already gathering in the pool area, where a quartet discreetly played Mozart and drinks were served by lynx-eyed Hispanic barmen.
Palm trees, music, warmth, light-coloured clothes, Hilton service. No hassle.
Embry was greeted on all sides. A lot of shaking hands and embracing went on. You couldn't tell when people were not glad to see each other. Levine went along with Embry some way, moving into the heart of the crowd with a glass in his hand, exhilarated. Crazy to exchange all this for England! Here were people he knew, if only by reputation, creative people, alienists, scholars, fermenters of society, men and women, involved in one branch or another of stochastics and/or education.
Hi there to Dale Marsh, plump and genial, wearing only a T-shirt above gaudy shorts, though most of the guests had adopted more formal attire. The legend on Marsh's T-shirt said 'Squint when you look at me lest you be blinded by my beauty'. Marsh was English, but had lived eight years in the States, teaching Urban Relationships in an Eastern seaboard university.
Levine was not all that enthusiastic about meeting another Englishman, but stood to chat politely for a minute or two. With Marsh was a pretty blonde woman called something like Polly Ester -- Levine did not catch the name and, unlike Americans, was afraid to ask for it to be repeated.
'Funny Hen Embry should elect to spend a year in Norwich at AUN,' he said.
'Is that anywhere near London?' Polly Ester asked.
'A year out at pasture and he'll come rushing back Stateside into a government post at zillions per month salary,' said Marsh, in a lordly way. 'That's how it works. That's how the system works.'
'Besides,' said Polly, lowering her voice and sliding a bare arm through Levine's, 'Hen's got big trouble brewing here with the ASSA. It pays him to make himself scarce a while.' In response to Levine's surprised look, she whispered into his ear. 'Cooking the books.'
The phrase, he thought, was like some secret sexual signal, releasing a flush of testosterone through his arteries as he felt her warm aromatic breath in his ear. That sod Dale Marsh had always been known as 'Lucky' Marsh. He knew how to pick the birds.
After the reception came dinner. They drove out, a dozen of them in hired cars, to a seafood restaurant up the coast in Boca Raton someone had recommended, where rock crabs were the juiciest.
Embry was in good form throughout the meal, drinking heartily, expounding a blueprint for a better world.
Levine, as a hard-pressed administrator at a university increasingly under financial pressure, did not believe in better worlds. He turned to Marsh, who happened to be sitting next to him, to express his cynicism, expecting Marsh as a fellow Englishman to respond similarly to Embry's plans.
'Things are different in the States, Levine,' Marsh said, condescendingly. 'In London, psychotics are guys who have discovered how life really is. Over here, that bit of luck goes to mountebanks. They can capitalize on their discoveries in ways valuable not only to themselves but to the public at large.'
Marsh sucked on a crab claw. 'You should read Embry's book on transpsychic reality -- and not just because it's sold a million. Basically, what he says -- I'm wedging his argument into a nutshell -- is that the nature of self, and hence of our perceived world, is -- or can be -- up for grabs. He says everyone has visions, sees ghosts, or whatever. Parapsychic phenomenaE Such things are dismissed as childish -- which they may be -- or disgraceful in our Western societies, and so are repressed or misinterpretedEwell, something like that. But actually such so-called delusions are pleas from an inner self for change. Urgent communications. We must all change.'
'Nothing very new there.'
'OK. That's no objection, is it? But Embry states that our early experiences can cause us to fix on a mental model of the world which we may need to junk. Like some disaster early in life can set us on disaster courses later. OCircumstance-chainO is his phrase. Pass along the pitcher, Oold chapO.' He put his mode of addressing Levine in humorous quotes, as if recalling a phase of life he had jettisoned.
Marsh's friend, Polly Ester, sitting on his far side, had hitherto contented herself with reading the legend on Marsh's T-shirt over and over. She bestirred herself to lean forward and say smiling to Levine, 'Dale's forgotten the part of the argument I like best. It's not just individuals whose memories of disaster can lead them to further disaster later in life. There's a brilliant chapter on how the individual is a microcosm of the nation. Hen shows how certain countries are ruled by -- ruined by -- memories of disaster.'
Several places away, engaged in argument, Hengist Embry nevertheless caught the mention of his own name and roared down the table, 'Alpha for you, Polly. Examples include Georgia, Serbia, many Latin American countries, maybe China, and, of course, Ireland.'
Marsh formed a circle of thumb and forefinger and made Embry a cheerful 'spot-on' sign as the latter plunged back into his own noisy conversation.
'Whether all that's true or notE' Deciding against completing the sentence, Levine returned to his platter of crab.
Rather to Levine's surprise, Embry paid him renewed attention as the group left the restaurant. In the carpark, he took Levine's arm in a friendly way and led him apart from the crowd, his mind evidently still full of his dinner conversation.
'Remember that lovely OVeni, RedemptorO? Well, man has to be his own Redemptor, to my way of thinking -- but fast.'
'Most human plans for improvement come to grief.'
'There opinions differ. Look what the US has become. This was all wilderness two centuries ago.'
While Levine was feeling ashamed of his English remark, Embry deftly changed the subject. 'As a successful man, I have my enemies here, Gordy,' he said. 'Some are not above spreading lies about me. You find the same kind of thing in every community. Now, let's get to the crunch. I'm a visionary but I'm also a practical man. I was hoping you could maybe give me a few introductions back in England, to ease my path in the new post.'
Levine said he did not entirely understand what line of work Embry was planning for the AUN.
'Gordy, I will be more than happy to inform you. What I mainly require from you is a warm personal intro to Sir Alastair Stern, principal of AUN. He's your uncle, right?'
'How I relish that British OactuallyO. I didn't know you were still using it.'
'I've heard the word on American lips.'
'Now, in a few sentences, I'll explain the project I have up my sleeve. It's a real beaut. I am eager to be working in Norwich. It's the capital of the County of Norfolk, right? See, I have some Norfolk blood in my veins. My great-grandfather sailed over to New England from Norfolk, back in the 1830s. That was a terrible time for the poor. The legend in the family is that the last great-grandfather saw of England was a line of hayricks burning on the horizon.
'My proposed project involves the analysis of an incident which occurred in the Norfolk port of Great Yarmouth. Do you know Great Yarmouth, Gordy?'
'Yarmouth. Yes, I've been there more than once. It's a seaside resort.'
'It so happens that there are Embrys buried in Great Yarmouth cemetery.'
'Quite a coincidence.'
Embry stopped his strolling and looked hard at Levine. 'A coincidence -- or something more? Is it not what I term a circumstance-chain? Is the universe of human affairs random -- stochastic -- or pre-ordained, or ruled by God? Or what? That is precisely the question I mean to research. It's a big question, with large implications.'
Looking as if for inspiration towards the distant neon sign proclaiming jumbo stone crabs, Embry began to recite. ' OWhat of the Immanent Will and its designs? It weaves unconsciously as heretofore Eternal artistries of circumstance, Whose visions -- wrought in wrapt aesthetic rote -- Seem in themselves its single listless aim, And not their consequence.O Thus the poetE Well, we are going to diagnose those artistries of circumstance for the first time. Ingenuity lavished on space technology will now confront Fate. Pardon the expression.'
The wine had somewhat clouded Levine's perceptions. He felt they should drive back to the Hilton, where he could lie down, or perhaps have another drink.
'I don't follow. A diagram of circumstance? I mean, couldn't you pursue such research more effectively in the US? Why Yarmouth, for heaven's sake?'
'It so happens that Great Yarmouth presents us with precisely the contained situation required, the kind of laboratory test case.' He smiled benignly. 'I'm an optimist, Gordy, and, what's more, I have the future good of humanity in mind. I see -- I do believe I see -- a way in which poor suffering mankind might be made happier, safer. And I'm not talking about SDI or anything like that.
'Ask yourself why we are always running towards disaster. Just when you might think affairs were straightening out, along comes a fresh crisis. It happens in individual life, it happens in international affairs. I can remember back to the aftermath of World War II. Just when we were sorting out the peace and trying to put everything together, along came the threat from the Soviet Union, and the Cold War descended upon us, warping millions of lives for decades.'
'That may be so, but it doesn't have much to do with Yarmouth.' He should have known that such a remark would not have ended the discussion.
A knowing finger was wagged at him. 'I hope it has everything to do with Yarmouth,' Embry said. 'There I shall test out my hypothesis of transpsychic realityE' He repeated the phrase thoughtfully, as if more for his benefit than his listener's. 'Transpsychic realityE If I'm right, then a new epoch in human relationships will dawn. I shall father a revolution in how we view the physical world around usE' He took a deep breath and then said, suddenly, 'I should have gone to the john before we left the restaurant.'
'We'd better get back to the hotel.'
The bladder problem evidently wasn't too serious. Embry dismissed it with a grand gesture. The physical world was going to have to wait.
They had come to the end of the carpark. Beyond some smart new plastic warehousing, masts of dinghies could be seen. Music of the swing era could be heard.
'I may as well admit it, Gordy. It's an ambitious plan, and it will need a whole heap of moral support from Sir Alastair Stern, not least because of the depressed state of the British economy in 1990. I want your father-in-law on my side.'
He outlined the circumstances of the case as clearly as if he was lecturing a class.
One of the depressants afflicting British life was the situation in Northern Ireland, which cost the British taxpayer many millions of pounds sterling a year. The Irish Republican Army, the IRA, although not politically effective, existed as a disruptive force in social life. In the mid-eighties, it had attempted a major coup when it planned a series of bomb outrages in English seaside towns during the holiday season.
Scotland Yard had got wind of the plan. Bombs of Czech-made Semtex were detected and defused in six towns along the South Coast. Three men had been arrested, including a high-ranking IRA officer. Unfortunately, one bomb had escaped detection. It exploded in a small hotel in Yarmouth.
'Four people were killed in the Great Yarmouth explosion,' Embry said as they climbed into his car. 'I am not concerned with the IRA. Though I may say parenthetically I do not approve of American support for the IRA. They can be described only as terrorists, killing and maiming innocent people. My AUN unit will investigate the lives lost.
'Who were those four persons killed that day? What were their lives like? What brought them to that hotel on that date? Was their presence merely stochastic, or had it to do with, say, economic conditions?'
'Or the hand of God?' hinted Levine, smiling.
'We are open-minded. We rule nothing out. Not even the Immanent Will. OVeni, RedemptorO. I do not go into this project with preconceived ideas, Gordy. I want to establish whether the random was at work, or were those deaths circumstance-chain deaths -- with submerged social causation of the same kind that draws me back to ancestral ground?
'It's going to be an original and epoch-making sociological field exercise. Who exactly were the four who died that day in the Hotel Dianoya in Great Yarmouth?'