They talk during lunch. Sometimes the conversation flows freely, and sometimes long periods of silence occur. The silence is broken, sometimes after a time period that feels like minutes, rather than seconds. Oliver imagines how they all think, intensely, about a new topic to bring up, and when one of them is brave enough to break the silence, a new discussion can start.
They mostly talk about facts. They do not talk about feelings. No one says “did you read that book, it was truly fantastic, it gave me a complete new picture of the Chinese culture.” Perhaps someone says “did you know that there is a golf player who can reach 300 meters using only his putter.” This may be followed by comments like “did he do it in a contest?” and “can he control his muscles or does he hit that hard all the time?” Someone may even joke, like “I was kidding, it was 300 yards, not 300 meters.”
Sometimes they talk about airplanes, or cars. They are not so interested in the design of cars, or if the cars are beautiful, or ugly. They are more interested in the internal, technical properties, of a car. Oliver remembers a discussion that ended with the phrase “it is called toe-in.” He remembers that it had to do with how the wheels are oriented, and toe-in meant that the wheels are oriented inwards. He imagined the wheels like the feet of a shy child, standing in front of an angry parent, and he did not hear when he was asked for his views on the matter.
He looks out of the window, and his mind wanders away. His colleagues continue their talking. Their discussion has shifted, and the current topic concerns methods for cleaning a roof from moss. They give lengthy descriptions of their favourite methods, involving manual work, performed while standing on tall and unsteady ladders, but also machine-assisted work, performed with the aid of high-pressure water hoses, aimed with precision at the unwanted weeds, and used with success thanks to their automatically generated, fluid-carried, force.
Oliver sees the grey clouds, and he remembers the start of the semester, in the midst of August, when the sun was shining and he travelled to work on his newly acquired bicycle. He continued using his bicycle until the beginning of November, and his goal was to use it also when he returned from Munich.
He remembers one August morning, a few days before the start of the fall semester. He was approaching the University building where his office is located, and his pace was slow and relaxing. He was travelling along the bike road, with its winding path through the campus lawns and the small groups of planted trees. He saw the students, marching, and he recognised what he had seen before, at the start of each fall semester.
It was the annual ceremonies and rituals for the new students of Engineering. He looked at the spectacle, and he tried to convince himself that it was interesting and meaningful, and that it gave the students a chance to meet new friends, and relax, before their demanding studies took off.
He did not participate in such ceremonies when he started his own studies. He found them ridiculous, and he wanted to concentrate on his school work, already from the first day. Some of his friends have reminded him, later in life, of his decision to put studies first, and to be very restrictive with social activities, and they have let him know that he perhaps made a bad choice.
“You see,” they said, “those years were the starting point for some really good networking.”
A grey, almost black, cloud enters his field of view. It moves slowly, eastwards, along the sky. Oliver wonders, silently, if some of his former student colleagues have utilised their networking experiences for the purpose of coordinated actions and confidential meetings, with the specific goal of unlawful extraction of data from National databases. He is confident that their academic competence, as well as their connections in different parts of the society, would be useful ingredients to ensure the success of such a task.
The tapping of a government-owned pen towards the wooden table alerts him. He turns, from the window, and looks towards his colleagues. They sit, around their lunch table, and some of them look directly at him. He sees the Department Administrator rise, and after a while he hears her voice.
“Oliver,” the Department Administrator says. “Dear Oliver, I should say.”
She stands, next to her seat, in one of the corners of the table. There is a light, from behind her, and Oliver realises that it is the winter sun. It has appeared, magically and without warning, and it blinds him a bit, so that the contours of her body, and her head, become a bit blurry.
He shifts his body, so that he can look at her more from the side. He straightens his back, and his view is more clear now. He lets his gaze move from the Department Administrator, towards some of his colleagues. He sees their faces, and some of them smile, slightly. They do not look in his direction. There are no eyes that meets his own, and he decides to focus his gaze on the Department Administrator.