“Dr. Didactic-Descry?” Clorice looked up in confirmation into the eyes of a silver-haired, sixtyish, hazel-eyed hummer wearing the “Archaeological Uniform”: khaki pants, a black Lacoste polo shirt, and obscenely expensive leather hiking boots. He most likely also packed a Tilley Endurables hat and zip-off trousers, a pair of Birkenstock or Mephisto sandals, and a rare bottle of an Islay single malt scotch – which had significantly more value than money when working in the middle of nowhere. Clorice smiled her most charming and well-practiced, lopsided coquettish smile, after years of braces she could smile without fear, and nodded in acknowledgement.
“Yes, and you are?” she asked.
“Let me introduce myself”, he said with a slight Asiatic bow. “I am Archie MacPrestidigitator, and I am truly delighted to finally meet you. Our site director, Dr. Jesse Sublime, asked me if I could find you in this academic zoo, and that rather rotund bartender over there with the rather exceptionally full and well-waxed Stalinesque moustache, who I do believe is staring at us, was kind enough to point you out to me after asking me a number of very pointed questions. I assured him that I had only honorable intentions in seeking you out!”
After quickly glancing over at Bishoy, who was openly staring at Archie and Clorice, Clorice’s smile turned from one of inquisitive politeness to genuine interest, having placed her interlocutor.
“Jesse and I arrived in Cairo late last night to restock some of our field supplies, and maybe catch a few talks at the conference. We will be departing from Cairo tomorrow morning to join the rest of the P.R.I.K.s – that is our fond nickname for the Projet de Recherches Internationales à Kharga in the Kharga Oasis.”
Clorice smiled. Every respectable project of two or more academics must have a proper acronym and an embossed business card.
“Please call me Clorice,” Clorice said, as Archie took her small hand in his muscular paw, holding it for a moment too long, clearly noting its rather poor grooming, his eyes dancing with delight.
Archie sat down. Clorice instantly liked Archie, a flamboyant 1970s style classic British poofter. Archie was the type of man that every woman wants as her gay-husband, whose good breeding, searing intelligence and rakish charm emanated from his persona.
“We heard through the grapevine that you were here at the conference,” Archie continued, waving his right hand. Clorice noticed his unique yellow gold signet ring with a white cross over a blue background with a red and pink gold crown on top. Clorice never could understand the devotion that some people had to their old alma maters.
“Clorice, your talk yesterday on changing fashion trends as a reflection of social and cultural change and free speech in Avaris during the reign of the Hyksos in the Thirteenth Dynasty, through the second intermediate until its destruction by Ahmose, the first Pharaoh of the Eighteenth dynasty, is rumored to be one of the hits of the conference! We were all very excited when we received your e-mail requesting to work on the clothing, jewelry and make-up remains from the P.R.I.K.’s archaeological concession.”
“Knowing in advance that you were coming, I took the liberty, at Jesse’s request, to pick up the requisite documents for you from the department of antiquities this morning. It’s a good thing you filled in all your forms and sent them here before coming. As a matter of fact, in all the years I have been working in Egypt, I have never seen paperwork move so quickly: it took less than half a day! Perhaps your reputation has preceded your visit!” Archie said, inquisitively raising his perfectly shaped, possibly plucked, left eyebrow.
“Thanks – I really appreciate that! I absolutely detest going through that bureaucratic nightmare, it normally takes me upwards to a week to get everything done, even after having forwarded the paperwork months in advance… someone must have been in a good mood! What is your area of expertise?” Clorice asked, switching the topic from the unusual speed of her bureaucratic clearance, and discreetly signalling in mid-conversational gesticulation to Bishoy, who had not taken his suspicious and protective eyes off the table, that everything was fine.
“Well actually, I am a retired chemist. I have decided that I want to spend my silver years working on archaeological sites, instead of playing boulles or hunting for the perfect bottle of olive oil, wine or truffles with the over-wrinkled set in Provence, the Dordogne or Tuscany. For the last few field seasons I have been conducting chemical assays on the geoarchaeological sediments and artifacts to ascertain the recipes that were used to paint various items. Including faces!” Archie said, tentatively feeling out potential links between his work and Clorice’s proposed research.
“I also seem to have become Jesse’s second in command and the team’s “go-for” – probably because I speak half a dozen languages and have endless patience for bureau-trash. I actually like it. But most importantly, I am the P.R.I.K.’s special-occasion pastry chef. The P.R.I.K. crew claims that my date, orange and walnut loaf is a work of art, a culinary secret that I learned from my dear ol’ mother in Ireland who spent most of her life at home baking pastries and knitting bomb cozies.”
“Where are you presently staying?” asked Archie.
“Here at the Ritz. It seemed logical, given that it is the conference hotel, though it is a bit pricey,” Clorice answered.
“If you would like, I will call William and arrange to have a bed ready for you at the Canadian Egyptology Institute in Maadi, where Jesse and I are staying. Jesse can brief you on the ins and outs of the current crew this evening, and you can join us on our ride back to the field camp in the morning.”
“That sounds like a great idea, I’d love to,” said Clorice, since she had been planning on joining the P.R.I.K.s in Kharga later in the week anyway and this way she wouldn’t have to deal with all the transportation hassles that had become the norm after the Arab Spring Revolution. Not that it was ever exactly “developed world” easy before.
“When I was a graduate student, I used to always stay at the Institute, and used their services extensively when I was in Cairo. It will be a blast from the past.” Clorice silently remembered the last time she stayed at the Institute – when she severely scalded her backside sitting on a toilet unaccountably connected to the hot water, and had blisters on her upper lips from the ubiquitous bed bugs for about a week.
“Brilliant! I will meet you in the lobby, with your bags, in about two and a half hours. Sorry for rushing away, but I just must get front row seats for a talk on post-depositional trauma to the textile coverings on juvenile crania in Roman period mummies and daddies from the Fayum, followed by what should be a riveting presentation on the chemical composition of eye makeup in Memphis during the Third Dynasty!” said Archie, fingering his frayed conference program with avid interest.
[Continue reading the next post in this novel: Chapter 2:I]