Thursday, 30 January 2014

Translated by You

"Dr Keogh...Dr Keogh" the voice at the front desk went up half an octave and, belatedly, caught her attention. What now, thought Charlotte, pushing her hair behind her right ear, an action she had been doing for decades. Especially when stressed. Her hair had took a pummeling when she had sat exams and now it got same the treatment when she marked them. What now, not another missive from the department head, she hoped. Another cloying tale of sickness amongst the staff and would she, could she be ever so kind and deal with another mountain of scripts that needed to be processed by yesterday! This summer virus was playing havoc with the university's ability to cope, with the head's blood pressure and with her free time. It might be recess but there was heaps of marking to do, as well as moderation, course prep, lesson plans and other admin. She should be concentrating on her research or getting away somewhere or at least hiding in the library with a novel.

That was where she was heading as she passed reception, security, call it what you want, in the main building. A pseudo classical bit of architectural froth, all white, turrets and sash windows erected by a philanthropic Anglophile in the nineteenth century. Expensive to maintain but the jewel etc, and it had a lovely octagonal room for the books. Charlotte had taken to escaping her office in one of the newer blocks late mornings , where the phone and the door knocks hardly stopped, and sinking into one of the old leather armchairs in the library.

She spun on her sneakers and smiled at the man waving at her from behind the desk. He was, on the whole, a good man and she did not care for the undergrads derisory takes on his surname. And it wasn't his fault if the Head wanted to drive her like a mule.

'Yes Mr Forknaud, may I help you?' She forced a sweet tone coming up to his station.

'It is my pleasure to help you Dr Keogh, my pleasure today,' he beamed.

'Call me Charlotte please, Mr Forknaud,'. The epithet 'Dr' still rang a little off beat in her head, having recently acquired her doctorate and then this assistant professorship. She still felt very much the new girl.

The janitor cum security cum postman nodded but did not offer the same informality. What he did do was hold out a parcel which had the immediate effect of lightening Charlotte's load. It was as welcome as the sun in spring after a long grey winter at her parents' farm in Alabama.

She was pretty sure what the parcel was as soon as Forknaud waved it at her. Now, in the library, a feeling of excitement spread up from her toes. She recognised the Venetian postcode. Oh great, she thought, I have been discombobulated without these. It had been quite a while since the last. The brown package was thick and sparkled with promise.

Charlotte's first year at the university was closing out. She looked forward to the second and feeling more comfortable. It was as if she had been wearing in a pair of shoes. There had been many 'pinching' moments in the last twelve months and, when they occurred, she returned to the framework, the context of her correspondences with Prof. Baxter. The rhythm of the year was work, coffee, food, wine, sleep, work and more work but the melody was the mesmerising translations of Meredith Baxter and her letters. These were a portal into a world they both loved and, in some way, inhabited. The world of Merytaset and 'The Temple Plot'.

The Temple Plot was Meredith's title for fragments of papyri that purported to tell the story of a high priestess of Amun at the Temple of Thebes during the second century and her discovery of a plot to assassinate the ruling Ptolemaic and female pharaoh, Cleopatra III. The fragments were written in the voice of the priestess. Charlotte, when Meredith's student, had worked on them with her. Intangibly, they always brought her peace. Gave breath, meaning to her existence then. But, time and the need for gainful employment had intervened.

Charlotte eagerly, like a mischievous child, tore at the packet, the papers spilling harmlessly upward and out onto the small knee high table in front of her. Her inability to suppress a whoop of delight brought a rebuking stare from the senior librarian who was passing by. Charlotte plucked Meredith's letter from the manuscripts and hid her flush behind it. She only scanned the contents. It was no more than a note but she would enjoy that later, in the solace of her appartment. It was the captivating image of Merytaset that she needed now.

The novel, an historical called 'Still she wishes for company', lay forgotten in her bag. Charlotte knew that she could do with some company herself, juddering as she was in the Texan heat. Meredith's company in fact but she could endure the heat, the bucket loads of work, as long as she received her communications regularly. She had a child-like trust in her old supervisor's refraction of Merytaset's tale and no long pondered her own translations of the papyri.

Charlotte's eyes ran down the typed prose, each line numbered in the margin so that it could be cross-referenced to the original fragments (photocopies of those were also enclosed). The margins were peppered with Prof Baxter's tight handwriting - notes, comments and questions. Questions? Hmm, thought Charlotte, perhaps she does want my help.

A phrase sprung out at her from the page she was reading. 'Bow down before me false maidens of the winds'. Oh My God, Charlotte half whispered, they made it as far as Babylon, that is a saying of the Goddess Ishtar.

Like a little boy placing his hand on an elephant, her trust bound to the moment, Charlotte thanked her mentor silently and returned to the first page of translation.

"Music splendours the soul, Isis the goddess of bird and fish and human, of all things, whispered in my ear..."

Copyright Gabrielle Goldsmith 2014

Author's note: The above piece owes its origination to an inspiring session on the January 2014 Magical Journey to Kerala, India, a writing retreat organised and ran by Claire Steele. I have used a number of her writers' group sessions, home and abroad, over the last two years to compose different parts of The Temple Plot and these were, suitably given their content, scattered, both physically and in my mind. However, the session in Kerala may well have given me a way to gather them together and give them a focus which will provide some coherence to the story.

The copyright of this post belongs to Gabrielle Goldsmith

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