Before the war, London was quite prosperous. People spent their days in bars and theatres, and the whiskies and wines had yet to see the dramatic inflation of the 1940s. Cambridge, a mere 90 miles away, resided in my memory as a paradise.
Uncle thought it was yet another of my pranks when my acceptance letter came in from the King’s College of Cambridge. Outraged, he nearly threw the beautiful red wax-sealed and Cambridge-stamped letter into the fireplace. Nevertheless, two months later, I found myself on a train from Bedford to London, and after struggling with my luggage through the station, got on a bus headed North, and jumped off at Cambridge.
The moment I disembarked, the glow of sunset beamed upon me as a blob of warm, sacred orange dyed the tips of the towers and chapels off in the horizon the same color, so bright that I almost had to cover my eyes. Under the soaring sky, the world appeared so tranquil and peaceful.
Holding my letter of recommendation, I found 72 Grey Pigeon Street after some struggles. It was a two-storied red brick house, with a little garden planted with Irish brooms and a slanted wooden milk box hanging from the white picket fence. The landlord was a kind, unmarried elderly lady, a friend of my aunt.
I spent five years in total in this house; in the second year I met Edmund, and in the fourth year he left me. Then, I waited for him for another year.
I studied mathematics at King’s College, and my grades weren’t bad. My uncle told me I was an idiot who knew nothing but math, but after meeting Edmund, I realized that I knew nothing at all.
I met Edmund for the first time under the apple tree in front of the library, which was blossoming with little pink flowers. Cambridge had always been beautiful during spring. I was carrying two erotic novels as I lingered in the library’s arched doorway, procrastinating, unwilling to meet the new professor for the second year. It’s said that we had gotten a big name in the academics for the calculus course, who had not only expertise in logic and quantum physics, but also experience in cryptography. He had won a staggering amount of awards. I had no interest in an unshaven old man, so skipped four consecutive lectures. Edgar got caught taking attendance for me, and passed me the professor’s message that I would be allowed to skip the lectures only if I talked to him in person with my end-of-term thesis. (By the way, Edgar was my friend, who studied (oil) painting, but he would often attend the math lectures for me.)
The apple tree was not very tall, and Edmund was standing beneath it, leaning against the trunk. He had one hand in the pocket of his trousers, and several flower petals scattered on his shoulders. He was tall and slender, in a clean, neat white shirt. The sunlight shone on him through the petals and oval-shaped leaves, painting him in warm and gentle colors like one of Edgar’s oil paintings. He was surrounded by a circle of students, and seemed to be answering some maths questions. Edgar was also in the crowd, so I squeezed in.
It was 1936 when I started school, when the political climate had just become delicate. Few people would openly discuss things like cryptography. When I joining the crowd, Edgar passed me a note with a long sequence of numbers. Frowning, I squinted at the numbers, before slowly reading aloud, “I-love-Professor-Edmund-Wilson.”
The crowd burst into laughter, as Edgar’s face ashened. He said, “Allen, this is not funny.”
I innocently shrugged. “That’s what is written on the note. How could I be interested in that type of old man.”
The man leaning against the tree interrupted, “He had decoded it correctly. This is a Caesar cipher with plaintext shifted back by six, and turned into a rail fence cipher. This slip was passed to Professor Wilson today by a girl. And you are?”
“Alan. Alan Caster,” I brusquely replied as I observed his face.
It may have been due to the lack of sunlight in the archives, but his face was paler than most people’s. He had tall cheekbones and deep green eyes, the color of chatoyant stones from antique stores, that were framed by long eyelashes. His smile made a perfect curve, enough to cause me to lose my train of thoughts.
By the time I recollected my thoughts, we were already sitting in a cafe together.
He reached for his cup and took a sip of the coffee. “You dabbled in cryptography?”
His voice was soft, reminding me of the glass wind chime on the cafe’s revolving doors, sounding out in the May breeze.
I shrugged. “No, but my parents used to be codebreakers, and left me some books about it…I read them when I was a kid. Besides, that cipher was not complicated—just move everything back by six letters, separate them into two lines, and read them diagonally.”
“Indeed, it wasn’t that complicated.” His green eyes suddenly narrowed in interest, “Pardon me for being forward, but may I ask which institution your parents worked for?”
“I don’t know. They passed away when I was five.” I was keen on changing the subject, “Hey, what’s your name? Which school are you from?”
“You are a Caster…” he muttered under his breath. “The Casters…sound familiar.”
He hastily stood up, shook my hands and left. I sat there dumbly for a while before calling the waiter for my check, only to find out that he had already paid.
To my frustration, I realized that I still did not even know his name.
However, I learnt soon enough. When I went to my first calculus lecture, I saw him walk in carrying a black leather notebook. He was the new professor with the staggering amount of awards. Professor Edmund Wilson, one of the most prominent figures in mathematics. He paused when he walked past me, raised his left eyebrow and asked, “Alan, you owe me five class assignments. Perhaps you’d be willing to stay and talk after the lecture?”
I groaned and asked Edgar, “Do you think he might have heard me call him an old man the other day?”
For the following few months, Edmund paid particular attention to me. As my professor, he always began the roll call with Alan Caster, and he would grade my assignments with the utmost scrutiny. Whenever I dozed off during the lectures, I would be called upon to answer all kinds of questions.
I feebly told Edgar, “I don’t think I stand a chance to hook up with him.”
Edgar’s face turned pale again. “This is not a joke!”
One day, we skipped the lecture for an afternoon tea by the Cambridge river, on the terrace of a cafe. “I think my darling Edmund hates me because I called him an old man that time. Darling, you don’t understand love at first sight, I am so heartbroken.”
Edgar looked very serious. “Homosexuality is illegal!”1
Edgar was a serious man, and a little awkward around people. He was slightly taller than me, with maroon curls and a typical Greek nose—very popular with the girls. We had met along the bank of the Cambridge river. In exchange for taking my attendance at lectures, I model for him free of charge.
I would flirt with the plaid, miniskirt-clad waitress at the cafe while he drew. I would lay on the grass, reading while he drew. I would talk all sorts of nonsense about Edmund while he still drew – I still could not understand until now how a scrupulous man like him would hang out with me, and even become my best friend.
At the time, I had thought that I was only pursuing Edmund for fun, and Edgar did not take it seriously either. After all, I went after one woman per week on average. This time was no different, except that Edmund was a man.
I was sprawled on a white lounge chair, using an old coat as a blanket. When I squinted my eyes against the sun lazily, I suddenly saw Edmund’s face, which scared the hell out of me.1
Even though it was already spring, he was still wearing his light grey coat and holding his black leather notebook as usual. He had heard every single one of my words, and leant down to say with a smile, “Alan, homosexuality is indeed prohibited in our country.”
He handed me a sheet of paper from his notebook and asked me to follow him. I walked behind him dispiritedly, and saw the beautifully sensual lines of his neck peeking out from his coat collar. I trotted in front of him and stopped him. “Professor, I’m serious. I fancy you.”
He smiled in an ambiguous manner and walked passed me, opening the office door with a bronze key. I was left outside the door as he went in to make a phone call.
I couldn’t make out the words he was saying clearly.
“…parents were genius ex-codebreakers…though it was simple, he did solve it with only one look, so I plan on letting him try Code #13. Yes I know the rules.”
He called me inside after he hung up. I thought he was going to give me my punishment for skipping the lectures, but all he asked was for me to look at the sheet of paper in my hands. I had been so focused on him earlier that it wasn’t until now that I realized that the it was covered with unintelligible squares, circles, stars, and moons. The blue shapes were all over the slips of paper. “Alan,” Edmund said as he motioned me to sit down, “if you really don’t want to write that dissertation on the Gödel theorem, you can try solving this code for me. A murderer had sent this to the media after committing the crime in London. A friend of mine in the Scotland Yard pushed the job to me since he knew that I study cryptography.”
He rang the bell for coffee, and gave me a smile. “I couldn’t decipher it, so I thought that maybe you could give it a try.”