Silence is golden

From the LabLit short story series

Richard P. Grant 20 March 2011

The days turned into weeks and I’d been there two months and not plucked up the courage to go and look her up

It’s a specific kind of silence. It can only be broken by one person, and that person is you. This silence was formed with one purpose. It’s been waiting for you its entire existence. It wants you to fill it. It doesn’t care how you do it – witty, serious, mumbling, erudite, evasive or relevant – but fill it you must.

Usually, it’s not a problem. You are skilled at this. You practise it. No matter how difficult, how obscure the question, the silence never gets a chance. You’ve heard some arse-clenchingly irrelevant mutterings from emeritus professors in your time, but you never, ever pause for more than a second.

So what went wrong?

That’s not important right now. What’s important is that you say something, anything. Well, maybe not just anything. It’s your first Departmental seminar. You need to win these hearts and minds, young hotshot, and you’re looking like a schmuck.


I knew, all too well, what had gone wrong. The methodology question hadn’t even engaged my higher thought processes. I knew the answer, had rehearsed it; dismissed it lightly but politely. But then I’d seen her. And it wasn’t just that she was there – the whole Department was there – but she was there on the end of a row, legs crossed demurely, and fixing me with those eyes.

It wasn’t my fault. How could it be? We’d been introduced on my first day – a postdoc in a lab somewhere on one of the four floors above the teaching labs, working on T cell signalling, strongly tipped for a faculty position, there might be an opportunity of collaboration, interesting ligand interactions, yadda yadda.

I was smitten of course. Amazed it wasn’t obvious, but I was whisked away, shaking too many hands and shmoozing and being shmoozed too intensely for anyone to mention it, even if they noticed. Too much of a phenomenon to be ignored or passed over – why anyone would give up the promise of a stellar career in London and move to Perth wasn’t the issue: simply the fact I was there, from overseas, was enough.

Green eyes.

And the day stretched away, and the days turned into weeks and I’d been there two months and not plucked up the courage to go and look her up. Not knowing her name didn’t help: “Hi, I’m John – we were introduced on my first day but I wasn’t paying attention. Who are you?” It just wasn’t going to work.

The Departmental website was stuck in 1997 and didn’t have postdoc names on the group pages, let alone photographs. I’d spent a fruitless afternoon trying to find her on PubMed, and by comparing possible projects and institutional affiliations narrowed the possibilities down to “P. Evans” or “J. Winstanley”, neither of which were immediately helpful.

I’d seen her occasionally at coffee or at the weekly evening talks of course, but always surrounded by her lab mates, and I seemed always to be collared, afterwards, by yet another withered has-been who thought I could “make an equal contribution to the research in my group” although I knew questions of senior authorship would be met by uncomprehending stares.

I turned my attention to the white-haired gentleman on the front row. I calculated that my chances of baffling him were pretty high, but it wouldn’t fool anyone else in the room. With a shock, I realized I’d blanked the founding Department Head, and nobody would forgive me for making him look like a fool. Disarming honesty was the best way, I decided.

“I’m terribly sorry, Professor Barclay. The previous questioner actually made a very good point that I hadn’t fully considered until now. And my train of thought was a runaway – would you mind repeating your question, please?”

A slight titter, a lightening of the atmosphere. An indulgent smile – and I’d got away with it.


There were three more questions, none particularly taxing, or even insightful. A polite round of applause, and the blinds went up. I unplugged my laptop from the projector; people started filing out. The grad students came up to the desk one by one and in groups, left their evaluation forms in an untidy pile on the desk.

I frowned at the mess. Picking up each feedback form individual, I made sure they were all the right way up; patted the edges and put the sheaf back down on the desk.

A hand appeared on mine.

“Sorry John. I usually have to do that. Thanks.”

I looked up.

Green eyes.

“You collect the evaluation forms?” Not the best chat-up line in the world, but the room had suddenly grown a lot larger, and warmer.

“For my sins, yes.”


“I’ll summarize them and email you, OK?”

“Fine, fine, I mean, if it’s not too much trouble, you must be terribly busy – ”

“I have to do it for all the speakers. They’re making me work for that faculty job.”

Has anybody ever told you you’ve got a beautiful smile?

She turned away. This is it, I thought. I’m blowing the best chance I ever had.

She stopped, turned back. Handed me a folded piece of paper.

“Oh, and here’s my evaluation.” One green eye closed briefly.

When I was safely back in my office, I unfolded the paper. Neat handwriting, blue ink:

Great talk. Cute accent. Can I buy you a drink?

Joanne x

Other articles by Richard P. Grant