Two months ago, I stumbled upon professor Womack, my professor protector, at a conference. This was already a minor miracle, as urban myths surrounding professor Womack speak about his virtual invisibility. I myself have faced him only a few times, even though we closely collaborate on various publishing projects. His surprising presence at this event may have been occasioned by the fact that he organised it.
He took his role of the organiser seriously, as evidenced not only by his very attendance, but also by his wearing a shirt. It’s not that he normally goes shirtless, rather, he notoriously owns only two sets of clothes. One is a thin grey sweater for winter, and the other a faded tee-shirt for summer, both to go with a well-worn pair of nondescript trousers. He has a shock of black-grey hair that he wears Einstein style. His brilliance is famed to match that of Einstein. Even more than Einstein, though, he looks very – academic.
Professor Womack was engrossed in conversation with a senior colleague as I went past him. He is the quintessential socially awkward academic, so as is his custom, he abandoned his conversation partner on the spot and went to pursue a new distraction when he spotted me. I fully expected he would abandon me, too, as soon as he sees someone more interesting, but he kept on talking. I politely followed him as far as to the speaker’s floor, where he began on a new topic. Some audience members mistook our dialogue for the start of the conference programme, and the hall gradually grew silent.
“So, Mara, has Martin got in touch yet?” inquires professor Womack cryptically, because he assumes that everyone around shares the context of his consciousness. Having no clue what he means but not wanting to look like an idiot, I answer the question with a question: “He didn’t?” Professor Womack pays no heed to the oppressive silence in the lecture hall and threatens: “He shall.” I’m tempted to continue in our Beckettian one-word exchanged by confirming, “Indeed,” but instead I ask what the heck we’re talking about.
Me and the hundred or so people in the audience, who still assume we’re performing for them, learn that Martin should contact me shortly regarding proofs for a book he’s editing. I used to believe erroneously that it’s the editor who does the editing, but experience revealed that it’s a ghost editor who does the heavy lifting. Despite the amounts of heavy lifting that I do, I haven’t developed muscles yet. My strongest muscle being the tongue, I make use of it to inform professor Womack of the five or six tasks that I’m now working on and, oh, also my doctoral thesis. At this point professor Womack is dragged away by a member of staff and made officially open the conference.
It didn’t surprise me that I never saw professor Womack at the conference again after his opening speech. All was silent on the academic front for about another month. Then Martin contacted me. I did the heavy lifting. I didn’t hear from Martin again after I submitted the work. Then my husband calls me that professor Womack called him that he would call me because we have a thing. I find professor Womack’s diverted channelling excessive, but I accept that his ways, like those of god, are inscrutable. I have a missed call from an unsaved number on my phone, so I call back, hoping it’s professor Womack and not some pervert or phone marketer. Professor Womack doesn’t answer, probably because he doesn’t answer unsaved numbers either.
I eventually reach professor Womack when I use my husband’s phone. Our conversation lasts about half an hour and is exasperating. Professor Womack apparently got hold of Martin’s manuscript, and the sloppy editorial work he saw gave him a seizure. Among other experimental ventures, Martin cancelled the bibliography for the book, the one that I carefully corrected before and that is essential for the book to be listed as “academic” rather than “general”. Professor Womack is very animated as he spits out that Martin also cancelled four-dot-ellipses and consolidated them into three-dot-ellipses. I say nothing but I think that Martin should be cancelled for his own benefit.
Professor Womack goes on that distinguishing between three- and four-dot-ellipses is a task that an editor performs as reflexive behaviour like Pavlov’s dog. I’m actually flattered by the comparison to Pavlov’s dog. Professor Womack throws in another of his epigrammatic witticisms, observing that we don’t want to end up like colleague Pfeiffer with the woods. Professor Pfeiffer never grew out of Indian tales, and for decades he’s been writing solely about Native Americans and the woods. I didn’t see his recent book on the woods, but I’ve seen the editorial condition his other creations. After I mentally process the ever so subtle joke, I get a giggling fit. My giggling fit throws professor Womack in his own giggling fit.
I apologise for being hysterical. Professor Womack can’t hear me because he’s laughing hysterically. When he’s done, he explains that the blame for professor Pfeiffer’s woods was limited to the department building because the book didn’t make it to academic publications databases. Martin’s book however will be submitted to the Web of Science database, hence the shame would be international. Professor Womack doesn’t like the idea of collateral guilt and refuses to spend the rest of his life hiding in gutters. Hence, he announces, he cancelled Martin by sending him for holiday and I’m promoted from a ghost editor to an acknowledged co-editor. I’m not sure if congratulations or condolences are due, but just in case, I’m already hunting for a nice gutter to hide in.