There was no coffee room on the second floor of the Mathematics building; instead there was a reading room with the most recent editions of journals and a small library of books that had been donated to the Mathematics faculty, often by the authors themselves. There were coffee rooms on the third and first floors, and the third floor tended to attract the faculty more. Students preferred the first floor coffee room, which was slightly larger and had vending machines in for out-of-hours refreshment. Joshua paused at the staircase, wondering which was more likely to have any of his friends in, and decided that he’d be ridiculed less by faculty than by students, so went upstairs. The scent of pine polish was settling down now, and the natural wood smells were reasserting themselves, which he found oddly soothing as he went upstairs.
The coffee room had four people in, which was more than he’d been hoping for. One of them was an elderly man who was nearly bald and was wearing a holey green jumper stretched over a grey shirt that looked as though it was being washed into transparency. Silver hair bushed from his ears and nostrils, and he looked to be half-asleep, sprawled in a comfortable armchair in a corner of the room. That was Emeritus Professor Vassiliy.
At the coffee-urn, which the staff filled before leaving for the day, Drs. Markam and Psoilovitch were talking animated about braids and knots, and Dr. Markam was waving her cup around with little care for how much coffee sloshed over the edges and spilled on to the carpet. Dr. Psoilovitch was more careful, but clearly just as engrossed in the conversation.
“Joshua!” The fourth person was Mark Davidson, another postdoc and a friend. He had been sipping from a cup of coffee and idly paging through a newspaper laid out on a table, but had looked up and seen that Joshua had come in. “How’s things? Did anyone tell you that Hawne is looking for you?”
“She already found me, thanks,” said Joshua. “She wants me to cover one of the seminars in June.”
“Boo,” said Mark. “Did you tell her you were busy?”
“I tried,” said Joshua. “You know what she’s like, she just said that she’d arrange things for me.”
“Yeah, she does that. Do you think she ever makes good on those threats?”
Joshua laughed. “That’d be something! Can you imagine the headlines? University professor murders wife, child to ensure continuity of seminar series!”
“No deltas or epsilons will stop me from reaching the limit!”
They both smirked for a moment.
“How’s the pool going?” asked Joshua, feeling slightly better at being around people again. “You’re third in the table?”
“Fifth now,” said Mark, pulling a face. “I had two games last week, and I lost them both. Bloody stupidly too, I can’t believe it. I potted the white on the last ball in the first game; I was playing so damn carefully too because I knew I could get first out of it if Rogers messed up either of his games, and the white just rolls across the table, getting closer and closer to the pocket, but I know it’s got to stop because I know how hard I hit it. And it gets to the edge, and it almost, almost stops. And then the bloody thing just drops in, neat as you please. I could have screamed.”
“What happened in the other game?”
“Oh, well that wasn’t so much my fault, thank god. I was on, two balls to go, when this complete wanker comes up behind me and yells ‘Boo’. So of course I miscue and the ball goes wild, and I end up losing, and no-one will accept that we should have a rematch because of that. I bet they’ll have a rematch if that happens the final though.”
“I’m sorry,” said Joshua. “That sounds like a pretty bad way to lose both games.”
“Yeah. Yeah, well. It happens, and there’s still four games to go. I might pull it back.”
They were both silent for a moment, knowing that there was more hope than truth to that statement.
“How’s things with you, been doing much lately? Apart from chatting up Hawne?”
“Working,” said Joshua with a smile. “Luckily, or I wouldn’t have anything for her seminar. Hey, you didn’t by any chance leave any journals in my office for me, did you?”
Mark shook his head. “Haven’t got a key, mate,” he said. “Someone left you a journal?”
“Yeah,” said Joshua. “An old one, Journal of Historical Maths or something. Really a bit odd, but it was on my desk when I came back earlier. Hey, why don’t I show you? See if you recognise it. I can’t decide if it’s someone’s idea of a joke or not.”
“Take me back to your office to show me a journal?” Mark’s smile was as wide as his face. “You old flatterer you, how many people have you used that line on? Let me top this coffee up and cancel my plans for this evening then!”
Laughing as well Joshua waited while Mark refilled his cup, and then got himself one.