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A quick spin

From the LabLit short story series

Julie Ghosh 7 September 2008

University had been as much about learning to function in the world as an independent adult as winning letters to put after her name

Amy sat at the hood, her forehead pressed against the cool glass in exactly the fashion she’d impressed on her students to avoid. In the first five minutes of the fifteen minute spin, she’d thrown away the old flask, labelled up new ones with date, cell type and passage number, and pipetted into each twenty-five millilitres of fresh medium.

Ten minutes to go. Not enough time to start something else, nor to remove her gloves and coat and go to the office for a coffee and a wade through her inbox. Amy glanced at the centrifuge. The digital display still read 10min. Time dilated in the tissue culture room. For lack of anything better to do, she squirted 70% ethanol onto her gloves and rubbed it over her fingers, noting the slight coolness as it evaporated. As an afterthought, she squirted some more onto a piece of blue paper towel and wiped away the slight smudge left by her forehead on the glass.

Nine minutes. The tip boxes were all tidily arranged, and she’d already counted out the exact number of pipettes of each size that she would need, plus one extra, just in case. The sharps bins were almost empty, so no need to change them. Amy wished she’d left herself something to do. Instead she sat at the hood, listening to the gushing fans, and staring at the benchtop centrifuge. It was completely stationary; even the digital display motionless. Only the quietly droning hum of the rotor belied the astonishing activity within.

Five thousand revolutions per minute! Amy tried to imagine it. She couldn’t. She thought of a fair that had come to the small town in which she had grown up, one Friday night. She and a few of her friends – seventeen; tipsy; bedecked in Top Shop finery – had each coughed up five pounds to take a ride in The Drum. They had taken off and handed in their high-heeled sandals for safe keeping and, with a certain degree of trepidation, unconvincingly concealed with squawks of laughter, then – after a handful of Upper Sixth boys bundled onto the ride – fits of girlish giggles, picked a spot to stand against the round wall.

Amy had felt detached and disembodied as The Drum began to spin, slowly at first, then faster and faster. She had watched with mild interest as the floor was lowered away from her feet, by now too sober and sleepy from the drink to join in the whoops and gasps of her classmates. She had noted that she didn’t feel like she was spinning, but instead felt perfectly secure, stuck to the wall, even as The Drum shifted its axis. She had tried to lift her hand to look at it, but it felt as heavy and immobile as in a dream. For a moment she had entertained the notion that she was in fact dreaming. That thought had been quickly replaced by one that five pounds was actually rather a lot to pay, just to be spun round and round. That money could have bought two more drinks, plus a bag of chips for the walk back to Holly’s house.

A sudden, tiny movement caught Amy’s attention. The centrifuge display had ticked down to eight minutes. Her mood hung halfway between boredom and stillness. She considered turning on the radio for company, but something about the idea of blaring out bland pop and over-excited Sunday afternoon DJs into the empty, functional room seemed inappropriate. She would only be eight more minutes, in any case, plus maybe five to resuspend the cells and divide them between the six new flasks. Then she could put away the medium, clean and shut down the hood, and then –

Amy thought of her car, almost the only one in the car park. She quickly turned away from that thought. There were things to do in the office – emails to be checked and replied to, coffee to be drunk. She’d sent off the last of the summer’s grant proposals at the end of the week, or she could easily have used that excuse to stay in the office until ten or eleven. No papers to review; no marking at this time of year; no posters to polish any further than they had been polished already. Still, reading and composing emails could be made to stretch for quite a long time. Amy needlessly tightened the lid of the medium bottle as she composed the outline of an email to Donna, the technician, in her head. She would see her tomorrow morning in any case, but perhaps it would be good to have the message – about scheduling time on the confocal microscope – in writing too.

Seven minutes. Pulling her glove tight over the cuff, Amy peered through the latex at her watch. About ten past six. Had she elected to wear the new, opaque, brightly-coloured nitrile gloves on which the health and safety people were now insisting, she would have had to peel her glove away from her wrist to check the time. Amy much preferred the thin, comfortable latex, and the clean, sealed-in feeling of gloves that stayed tight around her cuffs. She was hoarding several boxes of latex size 7-8 in the cupboard next to the hood against the day she would no longer be allowed to purchase them. In the wet lab, through which all and sundry were allowed to troop, she’d grudgingly adopted the thick, friable, blue nitrile gloves for public show. The tissue culture room, however, was hers. Only a select few were authorized to enter these hallowed halls and observe the comings and goings. She smiled slightly at the banality of the rebellion, examining her gloves, slightly yellowed in places from contact with her skin. Disliking their soiled appearance, she removed herself from the hood and peeled them off, pulling on a fresh pair that stuck to her slightly sweaty hands. She flexed her fingers and watched the display tick down to six minutes.

Amy’s car was an elderly white Toyota, as comfortable and unpresentable as an old pair of trainers – half car, half filing cabinet. She was vaguely uncomfortable about the fact that she only ever drove alone, being otherwise serious about her green credentials. There were, unfortunately, no other options. Public transport in this small university town was scant and unreliable, and housing within walking distance of campus was almost all snatched up by second- and third-year undergraduates months ahead of the beginning of the academic year. Amy didn’t have much cause to visit those residential streets, but whenever she did, she was struck by the mess and the noise and the fact that there seemed to be a party to be crashed just about every night of the week. The whole set-up struck her as strange; this concentration of students who could pass through three years of university hardly needing to interact with any human being who was neither student nor faculty, except to be served in the bars and shops in town. For Amy, who had taken her undergraduate degree in London and stayed there right up until her current post, university had been as much about learning to function in the world as an independent adult as winning letters to put after her name. She worried for her undergraduate students that they were really missing out.

She missed London, sometimes quite badly, but could never have turned down the opportunity to head her own research group. Pete had been less than happy about the move, even though he could work from home anywhere. Amy had argued that she was worried about stagnating – personally and professionally – and was wary of starting to feel that London really was the centre of the world. Even now, three hours away by train, she still felt that way. In London, of course, she hadn’t needed a car. The white Toyota was actually only the second car Amy had ever owned, the first being a graduation present from her mother, an equally elderly Citröen Dolly. She had loved that eccentric old car at first, and taken every opportunity to use it. She ferried friends from her grad school intake on trips to Bristol and Manchester on sunny weekends – even on one occasion, a rather ambitious trip to St Andrews in Fife. After a year or two, however, the cost of frequently having the overheated engine repaired, the long hours of driving and the responsibility of always being the designated driver, gradually put her off suggesting many more long trips in the Dolly.

In fact, the appeal of car ownership in London had rather quickly worn off, and after the first year, the Dolly had mostly stayed put in the residents’ parking spot outside Amy’s flat. Once she had accepted her first postdoctoral position, shortly before submitting her PhD thesis – meaning that she would be living in London for at least three more years – she had sold the car. She had felt obscurely shameful about mentioning the sale to her mother.

Amy decided to stand up as the display hit five minutes. Suddenly restless, she pottered through the box of odds and ends next to the inverted microscope. She noted that the haemocytometer hadn’t been cleaned at all since its last use, and the coverslip was glued to it with dried cells and medium. As she pulled it off, it snapped. Shaking her head, she disposed of the pieces in the sharps bin and wiped down the mucky haemocytometer thoroughly, making a mental note to bring the transgression up in Tuesday’s lab meeting. Otherwise, the bench was spotless. Everything was in its place in the cupboards or the fridge. For want of anything left to do, Amy sat back down just as the readout changed to four minutes.

She had met Pete nearly four years ago in that most clichéd of locations, the laundrette. Whenever called upon to tell someone about it, she always made the same joke about the Levi's commercial from years ago. There was a washing machine in the flat Amy rented with two friends, but no dryer and no garden to hang out clothes. Her room was too small to be permanently festooned with drying T-shirts and underwear, so she allowed herself the small luxury of the laundrette, ten minutes down the road. A wash took fifty minutes, which was long enough for her to walk back to the flat and get on with something, but she had never felt entirely comfortable leaving her clothes unattended in the tumble-dryer, which anyone at all could open at any time.

So, once a week, she made this her reading time – a chance to catch up on a frivolous fiction novel or magazine; anything non-work related. She had been profoundly irritated when the young man with floppy blond hair had insisted on asking her what she was reading, and then proceeded to ask a string of questions about it, and the author. This put her slightly on the defensive; she considered herself reasonably well read, but the young man’s questions had an interviewing tone. She did not doubt that he was very familiar with the work, but she did not like feeling bettered or out of her depth, and was thus drawn to answer to the best of her ability. Apart from anything, the man’s – Pete’s – manner annoyed her. He was clearly intelligent and articulate, and clearly thought he was a real charmer. Inevitably, he was proven right. Without introducing the slightest incongruity into the conversation, he had asked Amy if she would like to meet him in a nearby pub after they had both finished with their laundry. She had struggled with herself for a moment, but it had been a long day – a Saturday – in the lab, plus the results she had painstakingly obtained were completely at odds with her supervisor’s hypothesis and would no doubt be discarded, so she felt she could use a drink.

Three minutes. Amy picked up the automatic pipettor and gently pulled back the trigger. From the pitch of the vibration, it appeared to be getting low on charge. She would remind herself to replace it in the charger once she had finished for the evening. The rush of memories hurt her, as they often did on the rare occasions she had nothing with which to occupy herself. The girl playing her part seemed strange, naïve, as though the first part of her life had been acted by an understudy who hadn’t fully understood the character, or the script. Recognising the aching hollow growing in the pit of her stomach, Amy reigned herself in. Tears had no part in aseptic technique. She glanced at the centrifuge. It held at three minutes. Amy adjusted her gloves and again sprayed them with ethanol, trying not to brood.

The first time it happened had been two years into their relationship, after a house party at a friend’s place, just down the road from the flat they had recently started sharing. She herself had had too much to drink, and had only a fleeting, abstract recollection the next morning. He had been inconsolable, and determined to leave her that day. She had been irrationally shocked by the idea of suddenly being completely alone, and had begged, threatened and cajoled him into staying. Even then, the absurdity of what she was asking had been perfectly plain to her, but she really, truly, believed it would never happen again. She had never seen him in tears before that morning – she had figured that had to mean something.

Two minutes. No time at all. Amy stood up again and rested her hands on the centrifuge, letting the steady vibrations calm her thoughts a little. She saw herself, as though from the outside: a grown woman; the head of her own research group, already a known figure in her field; popular amongst the undergraduates for her dynamic, engaging lecture style; respected by her colleagues and generally expected to shatter glass ceilings in the not-so-distant future. She looked at the image she projected and felt like an utter fraud.

One minute. The vibrations slowed and became more pronounced as the centrifuge slowed. Amy stepped back and resprayed her gloves. An idea was forming in her – bizarrely, for the first time. She needed to step into the character no-one realised she was only playing. And there was no way she could do this under current circumstances.

The centrifuge clunked open. Wasting no time, Amy whisked the tube of pelleted cells to the hood and aspirated off the supernatant, resuspending the cells in fresh medium then distributing them amongst the flasks she had prepared. She popped the flasks into the incubator and wiped down the hood, completely forgetting to recharge the pipettor before shutting everything down. Leaving the tissue culture room, she stopped only to grab her bag and shut down her PC before heading straight to the white Toyota.

Six o’clock. She hung on to her resolution as she drove, fervently hoping she would get home to tell Pete what she had decided before he got bored and opened a bottle.