Everyone agreed that from birth Bartholomew had been an exceptionally clever boy but now that he was nearly thirty-five they had begun to suggest that he had lost his edge. All his cousins were settled into little domestic circles of bliss but he hadn’t even found a girl who interested him or, for that matter, a girl who was interested in him. Not everyone desires to marry a rather plain, painfully shy, not-so-young man famous, well almost famous, for his ingenuity.
Bartholomew gave some thought to what kind of woman would suit his needs? A cagey girl with a Machiavellian touch. Able to converse on mathematics and music. Not overly pretty. That would cause too much stress. Excellent at games and puzzles of all sorts. An interest in philosophy would be pleasant but not absolutely necessary.
After a single night of restless sleep Bartholomew devised to lay a trail of enciphered marriage proposals with clues to his location embed in what might appear to be nonsensical signs. On Wednesday he distributed the first set of these coded messages throughout the Victoria and Albert museum. The camouflaged clues directed any interested young women to where they could find the next clue in an adventurous series of cities: a children’s shoe store in Brussels, a burlesque in Prague, a shady-side cafe in Bucharest. Then Ankara. Then Kashi.
In Beijing Bartholomew hid his messages in a take-away menu he had distributed around several hotels. In Osaka the clues were taped to barrels for trash. In Seattle they were plastered on the sides of houseboats. Graffiti on the walls of a baseball parks in Detroit. And painted on bench beside the Boston Common.
When he finally returned to England Bartholomew worried that his clues had been too easy or maybe too obscure. If hordes of women were on his trail he’d have to devise a whole new plan to narrow the field. But far worse, what if no one sought him out on Tuesday at the Finchley Road Station of the Northern Tube Line?
As it happened only one young woman, the perfect number, came to the spot that he had chosen and asked him the critical question, “Which train should I take to Swiss Cottage?” It soon became apparent that she was a musician of less than remarkable skill, had no interest whatsoever in differential calculus, was uncommonly pretty, and liked what she saw when smiling at him. Her field of interest as she explained it was urban anthropology, which he took to mean she was a minister in a minor religious sect. “At Oxford,” she added. And Oxford he quite naturally understood.
So to his great relief, Bartholomew fell instantly in love. Forty years and three perfectly pleasant children later she admitted to a friend that she had never traveled before meeting her husband and that at the station where he had been so excited to meet her at long last he had never seemed to hear her when she had tried to explain that he must have confused her with someone else completely.
“Cryptic Irish Train Schedule” photographed by Troy H. Litten in 2002
Chronicle Books, San Francisco, California USA