Art Pact 204 - The debate

"In questionable times like these," the young man said, "it's more important than ever that we focus on our own priorities before looking further afield for problems to solve. What does it profit us if we throw away our energy in pursuit of questionable gains for strangers and neglect those closer to home?"

He looked around, perhaps hoping for a little interim ovation to begin and give him a rest from the sound of his own voice. Nothing was forthcoming, though - as I had expected the moment I had heard him talking. He had misjudged his crowd severely, perhaps under the mistaken impression that he was still talking to his local conservative party rather than the conference's mixed group of economists and do-gooders. I could imagine his confusion, expecting rousing applause from the ruddy-cheeked squires and blue-rinsed grandmothers who must have populated the village halls in which he normally performed, and instead being greeted only by polite coughs and the gently tapping of fingers on laptop keyboards from the continuous-partial-attention brigade. He shuffled his papers nervously and pressed on regardless.

"Despite what some people would like to believe, the aid budget is a zero-sum game."

A few heads perked up in the audience at the invocation of game theory, and I realised that he must have at least a speech-writer who was somewhat aware of the venue. But again it had been somewhat misjudged, since the heads that I could see pop up were only those who were paying attention in order to punish him for his foray into their jargon. The confusion of lay-people being their own little ring-fenced playground, they guarded the language of their work quite closely, and I knew enough to understand that he had used the term only partially correctly. Those who were not specialists had begun to pay attention because of his misstep in making an assertion that it was hard to fully argue. I could see shoulders twitching, hands beginning to come alive with preparations: fuelling themselves, beginning countdowns to the end of the session, calculating trajectories so that they could rocket up the moment the chairperson called for questions, their logical warheads ready to explode over the speaker's head.

The distraction caused me to miss a few lines of the speech, but I saw a few flinches, wry grins, and sudden frowns on the faces of the audience that hinted at yet further controversy in his point. But my concentration was taken completely by something I spotted in the back row, behind the final seats.

Standing by the back wall was the old woman that I'd seen earlier talking to Dr. Fielding. I recognised the clothes, although I had not seen her face the first time. She had, in addition to her handbag, a conference tote hanging off the shoulders with the sort of taut straps that suggested that it was full of books, or possibly lead bars. She had tied back her hair into a frizzy grey ponytail so tight before the band that it might also have been intended as some sort of cheap facelift. Her eyes were a pleasant almond shape, so that I guessed that she might have had some Chinese grandparent, and her lips were coloured with a particularly striking red.

Beside her, leaning on the wall, was a young man that I did not recognise at all, though I recognised quite well the rapt expression on his face as he looked at his companion. I couldn't quite see the attraction myself, although I had to admit that she was relatively handsome. I had to assume that her charisma was based on some more admirable quality than mere physical attraction, and I wondered how close I would have to be to eavesdrop on them. Perhaps another couple of rows back would do it, I thought - if I moved to the left (relative to me), I could get to the aisle and with a little luck travel back without being seen by them. That would give me a good view of their faces without putting me so directly in front of them that they would see me twisting round in my seat.

I awkwardly gained the seat I was aiming for, although extricating myself from my original seat was not as graceful as I had hoped, a little ripple of attention forming around me as I negotiated my way past my two neighbours. The new seat was as good as I'd hoped, though, and as I slowly turned my head over my right shoulder I could see that the young man had turned to face the stage as well, putting his face perfectly on display for my lip-reading.

"...but there's no evidence," he was saying.

"Absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence," she quoted at him. But she turned and bestowed a more motherly look on him, adjusting the strap of the heavy tote-bag so that it didn't slip off her shoulder. "You can always go back to the institute and get a little more manpower from them. I won't think any less of you, you know."

"I- no," he insisted. "I can do it. I'll find her."

"Well, that's very ambitious of you. But don't let your pride get you in trouble. If you can't find her, or if they get a bead on you first, go to the institute or come-"

She stopped talking, and the young man looked around at her, saying something that I couldn't see - although I could tell by the subtle movements of his jaw that he had said something short.

"Yes, that's what I was going to say," she said. "But I might have to go underground for a while. If I vanish, I don't want you to panic. I also don't want you to waste time coming to find me when I won't be able to help you. Go to the institute."

"OK," he said, having turned back. "But I'll try myself before that."

"Good. First of all, though," she said, "I'd like you to take care of the man who's watching us talk. There, the one pulling his hat down."

I froze, my hand already touching the brim of my baseball cap.


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