Vivienne remains unconvinced of her former mentor Robert’s arguments in favour of the rational. The empiricist in her knows to believe what she sees, but the rationalist in her still fights this instinct. Work loses its favour for her. Science seems foggy. She is invited to a conference and meets somebody she does not expect to see.
Viv stayed in the café after Robert left, making arrangements with this Peter to talk about teeth. The meeting wouldn’t be until tomorrow, so she went for a walk. Unsurprisingly, she ended up at the block of apartments near Fleet Street. She talked to the concierge, but Ignatius wasn’t in. She thought about leaving another message with him, but decided against it. She wondered momentarily why Ignatius didn’t have his own phone, but she reckoned journalists probably weren’t his usual go-to contacts. Instead, she called in at the office.
“Nice piece, Viv,” said Emma over red-rimmed spectacles as she marched over to Viv’s desk. They had little red horns at each side. Viv couldn’t see why they were so trendy, but supposed they must be if Emma was wearing them.
“Good column, that last one. Keep it up, we’ll make a fashionista out of you yet. Though not with that outfit,” she said, waggling a finger up and down in distaste.
Viv looked down at herself. She was a bit of a mess. She hadn’t showered, and her clothes were yesterday’s. “Sorry. Rough night.”
“Yes, I’m sure,” Emma said. The way she pouted through those red rims made her look like she was constantly judging. Viv wondered if there really was anything more to Emma than met the eye, or if she was just another airhead.
“Are there any more parties scheduled?”
“There are always parties, sweetie. One just has to know where to look. You must have figured that out by now.”
Yes, she had. But she still didn’t know where to look. “Have you ever been burned, Emma?”
“Urgh, all the fucking time, darling,” she said, walking away.
Peter was nice enough, but Viv couldn’t focus. Daydreams of fire and steam came unbidden, and it took quite some willpower to shut them down and enable her to listen to what he had to say. Her science managing editor, Kazim, had been open to the idea of the article and had given her his blessing. Once she would have been riveted by this radical new technology, but it seemed like a bloody trifle.
“The use of novel materials infused with nanotechnology means we’re able to change the molecular structure of bad teeth,” said Peter, a dullard with a West Bromwich brogue. He flashed her an excited grin as he showed her slides of various 3D molecular diagrams. His own teeth were crooked, and slightly yellow. Maybe they were his inspiration. “The tooth will regrow itself while still inside the head of the patient.”
“What do you mean by bad teeth?”
“Teeth that are rotten, or where the nerve’s already died. If you want your headline, you could say that we’re bringing dead tissue back to life using these techniques.”
She smiled wryly. “Bringing the dead back to life: that’s a little overdramatic, wouldn’t you say?”
Peter shrugged out a smile. “This could revolutionise things, love. We’ve regrown rats’ teeth a few times and the basic technology is sound. We’re probably some way off trying this in humans, but there’s a company in America that’s willing to invest and help develop the technology further. It’s the end of tooth decay.”
The small things drove most men, and as Viv held a model set of dentures while Peter gave her a tour of the facilities in the department – basically a few computers – she realized there weren’t many things smaller than a tooth. Weeks ago this would have entranced her, but now it failed to ignite her passion. She looked for the lab window, but realised there wasn’t one. Holding the dentures, she wondered if you could burn toothrot away.
“There’s a medical conference I’m speaking at tomorrow in Earl’s Court,” said Peter at the end of their appointment. “Why not come? There’ll be more on this, and you’ll get to speak to some others about the work. There’ll be plenty of others working on other areas: medical robotics, bioplastics, all sorts of things. You should come. There’s a drinks reception afterwards. I can easily get you in as a guest.”
“Yes, I think I’m free,” she half-lied, hoping that something else – someone else – would make her a better offer.
Her phone mocked her with silence for the best part of two days. She’d submitted the tooth article and rewarded herself with a walk around town, but she spent most of it glued to her phone, waiting for a message that didn’t come.
She regretted not putting her hand into the fire that evening. She could’ve done it. Even if it had hurt – even if it’d been agony – she could have wrapped Ignatius’s towel around her arm and killed the flames. She bit her nails and imagined the knife burrowing its way into Ignatius’s arm, right down until she could feel the scratchy resistance of bone. She looked at her own forearm, pasty and whole, and ran a finger along it.
A rundown of her social media feeds revealed a few happening parties that evening, but she’d no idea which one was which. Her hair was stuck to her forehead with sweat. The air seemed as though it was starting to cook, and she swore she heard the faintest warm-up of thunder. Beside her was a clothes shop. The highly-polished window gave a ghostly glimpse of her own reflection. A drab dress and well-worn pumps framed the woman staring back at her. That wouldn’t bloody do anymore. She walked into the shop and spent an hour choosing a pair of extravagant heels, a dress, a clutch bag and something the buxom shop assistant had called “intelligent underwear.”
Sweat streamed down her as she walked back to her office, but it couldn’t wash away the broad smile on her face. If she had to attend Peter’s conference tonight, she was going to be the one they all looked at.
She was right, as it turned out. The dress – a black, one-shouldered maxi with lacy detail around the hem – fitted like a glove. It was the barbaric monstrosity that she had on under the dress that actually made it fit like a glove, but despite the pain she felt a million dollars. In fact, she decided, the pain makes it feel even better.
Peter’s invitation to the conference had been accepted, but Viv chose to only turn up to the drinks reception. A penguin offered her a glass of cheap wine, which she refused. She’d brought her own large bottle of water, and swigged from it regularly as she wandered among the crowd.
“Hi, Viv,” said Robert, his genial hug engulfing her. “You look much better than you did the other morning.”
She put a hand on his shoulder and smiled. “You know what? I feel better.”
“You took my advice?” he looked at her with fatherly, mock-stern eyes. “You haven’t seen that whatshisname, have you?”
She raised her eyebrows. I wish I had. “No. Easy come, easy go.”
“Peter said he was pleased with your meeting. He’ll be delighted to see you. What did you think of his talk?”
“He’s…” Dull, unambitious, flat, earth. “…he’s really interesting. The article will be there this weekend. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.” Robert started saying something about Peter’s teeth project, but the words washed over her as she glanced about the room, seeing if she could see anyone. “Mm hmm,” she agreed, not catching his eyes. “Would you mind if I just, I’m just looking for someone I want to speak to.”
Robert looked slightly put out, but he was far too polite to protest as she smiled and walked away. This type of drinks reception was something she’d been to a hundred times before: men in ill-fitting suits and badly-maintained facial hair standing just too close to her; women whose hair looked like they kept a static electricity ball beneath their skirts. Some of them – a lot of them – were brilliant, in spite of how they looked. But she knew their lives would be spent scrabbling around for funding from research councils and Government sources for pet projects that seemed so utterly useless that it made her want to grab them by the lapels and scream at them that progress wasn’t to be found in widgets and tinkering. One man – short, badly-outfitted, and wearing two pairs of spectacles – craned up to her to describe his frustrations with MOD funding for maritime power systems.
“Maybe we should just burn the whole place down,” she interrupted, mid sentence. He looked at her as though she was quite mad. “And from the ashes everything can start again. What do you think?”
“I, I, I, I, ah, but you’re missing the point, dear. It’s ah, ah, ah, a policy issue,” he said, fiddling with his spectacles, as though they held the key to the conversation. They didn’t. In her heels, she towered over him, and they clacked satisfyingly on the floor as she walked away.
The circular conference hall boasted a balcony that overlooked the main auditorium; Viv perched there awhile, overlooking the throng below, deeply engaged in their conversations. She held a glass of wine but didn’t drink from it. Frequently she would see the gaze of a man – and hello, what’s this? The occasional woman, too – surreptitiously looking up to catch a glimpse of her. She smiled back and waved, at which point they embarrassedly whipped their eyes back to where they belonged. When that bored her it wasn’t hard to imagine the whole edifice being razed to the ground. Many of their ideas – brilliant, of course – wouldn’t amount to a great deal in their lifetime. Even brilliance became stale. Humankind – with its interminable mesh of government, huge organisations, globalized regulations and blocks on real progress at every turn – had gotten itself into a terrible tangle where nothing really got done. Ignatius’s wounded arm floated into her mind’s eye. This place – this auditorium, these people, this city, this world is becoming one giant wound. I’m wounded. The thought of never coming into contact with Ignatius again struck, and she almost teared up. Telling herself to pull herself together, she turned away from the crowd beneath her, depriving them her gaze.
“I preferred you as a wallflower.”
The woman was shorter than Viv, and had a kind of puffy, doughy face framed by unkempt brown hair flecked with strands of grey, her eyes two olives shoved into the dough, almost as an afterthought. She looked as though she’d just come from a bloody good kneading. Grey tights hung below a shapeless grey dress. An awkward smell hung about her, and her voice was a gravelly bass. Like a man’s.
Viv put a hand upon her heart. “I’m sorry, do I-”
“Hah!” The dumpy woman waved a hand dismissively. “We don’t all wear red shirts and melt hearts.” The woman had a European accent she couldn’t quite place, which threw her. The woman gave her side a good scratch and gave Viv a look like a leer, her fat little olives scanning up and down, as if she were considering eating her.
“I’m sorry, you are…?” asked Viv, suddenly self-conscious. Parading like a peacock in front of the hopeless men in the audience had been simplicity itself, but in front of this woman her façade was on the verge of crumbling.
“I work for the Government. Oh, nothing like that,” she waved when she caught Viv’s eyes widening. “I’m an evaluator for the Scientific Development Board. I decide which industrial research projects to fund. I’m a minor civil servant, a mid-tier dogsbody.”
Standing in the shadows of others. Still the woman leered. In her experience men never leered, despite what people said. Men looked out of the corners of their eyes, stole glimpses of pretty ladies when they shouldn’t, and then snatched their gazes back when caught out. Even Ignatius never leered; he was intrigued, hungry even, but this woman… Viv looked for a seat, but there was none. Her shoulders gooseprickled in the cool air. “What, ah, what area do you evaluate?”
“Advanced materials. I’m a metallurgist.”
Viv almost laughed. “They still fund metallurgy?”
The woman looked a little offended. You couldn’t offend women like her by chiding their looks. She knew that from experience. But belittle their expertise… Shame on you, Vivienne. When have you ever done that before?
“Yes, metals are still of principal importance, I assure you. When man has exhausted the possibilities of the malleability of the earth’s bounty he has exhausted life itself.”
Scientists don’t talk like that. But Viv knew someone who did. “I agree. I… I didn’t mean to cause offence. I’m just surprised that such things are still, you know, strategically relevant to the UK. I mean, I’m a chemist, so why wouldn’t I, you know…”
The woman’s leer was back. “This drinks reception bores me. I fancy some air.” A pack of cigarettes appeared in her hand. “You will join me?”
The tone made Viv unsure if it was an invitation or an order, but the fags were tempting.
Outside, the woman offered Vivienne one of her cigarettes but said nothing. She stood in her thick polyester dress by the conference building entrance, puffing away industrially. In the time it took Viv to get through one of the woman’s black tarsticks she’d sucked her way through three. Despite the heat, the woman remained dry as a bone, while the summer sultriness made Viv increasingly uncomfortable. Her stomach turned at the strength of the cigarettes.
“I enjoyed that very much,” said the woman. When she finished she ground her cigarette out on the palm of her hand, making Viv cry out and lurch to her hand.
“What the bloody hell are you doing?” Viv turned the woman’s hand over, letting the fag-end drop to the ground, dead. No burn wounded the woman’s hand, and she looked at Viv with a crooked smile. Her breath stank of stale fags, making Viv reel. It’s him.
“I think it is time,” the woman said, producing another cigarette and lighting it. Viv’s legs turned to jelly. The woman sucked her way through two-thirds of it and then held the cigarette between thumb and forefinger before Viv’s face.
“What are you going to do?” whispered Viv.
“Give me your hand, Vivienne.”
Plainly, it wasn’t a request. A pained cry escaped Viv as the woman grasped her wrist and twisted it up, forcing Viv to move with her. She squirmed and squealed, trying to wriggle free, each action only aggravating the pain. The woman thrust the cigarette into Viv’s palm, and she screamed as it melted into her skin.
“Look, woman, look!” The woman was crazed, fixed upon Viv’s hand. Terror took the screech as she saw steam – steam! – and water vapour hissing out where the cigarette met her flesh, like a kettle. Transfixed, Viv stopped thrashing, calm washing her as the hiss of vapour billowed out into the hot evening’s air. Finally the woman loosed her grip, casting Viv’s trembling hand away. Viv fell to her backside and gathered her hand back, studying it front and back. The wound, singing with agony, wasn’t there. She became aware of her trembling breath, and a thousand questions hit her.
The woman waved away the question. “My name is Georgiana Abercrombie. Like I said, I work for the Scientific Development Board.”
Viv rubbed away the sting. Her makeup had run down her face, and she realized she was sitting on her arse in the street. She must have looked thoroughly drunk. The woman offered a hand to get her on her feet again. She needed a drink, and searched her bag for her water bottle. It was empty. “I… I need to refill my water bottle.”
“Fine. But after that, we go.”
“Thank you.” Viv tried to smooth down her dress, but it was crumpled beyond recognition and stank of fag-ash.
“Don’t worry about that ugly thing,” said Georgiana. “It doesn’t suit you anyway. I know something that will suit you much better.”