From the LabLit short story series

Alan Garth 17 June 2012

Ellie shared the unease of the audience as he continued in this vein: people were shuffling awkwardly, sharing glances

Ellie Watson had escape in mind. She had had enough of Winkle, or whatever he called himself. He started up again in his transpacific accent.

“Ah, I’ve known Jim about thirty years, in fact. Actually, I launched his career. I introduced him to the reamshoot fish with my paper in the International Journal of Fish Habits. Of course, Jim soon took over and became the authority on the reamshoot. Sometimes he thanks me for ...”

How had he introduced himself? Professor Av Winkle? Ellie had never heard of him, although ‘Jim’, Professor James Earith, was her PhD supervisor. She couldn’t get a word in edgeways and was now finding it difficult to concentrate, what with the party chatter around them and the gust of halitosis that accompanied Winkle’s every sentence. Ellie was inhaling shallowly to reduce the intake of noxious volatiles; when she felt herself running low on oxygen, she resorted to breathing as if swimming front crawl, rotating her head to the side to gasp fresher air and then turning back to exhale. Fortunately for Ellie, Winkle was mostly directing his monologue, and the dragon’s breath it rode on, at Thatch, her new friend, who was standing to her left, trying to appear interested.

‘Thatch’ was really Tadleigh Hatch, so called because of perinatal parental indecisiveness and a random stab at a list of boys’ names. The nickname had started at school, he had explained, but it was also an apt description of his thick straw-like hair, so that ultimately even his parents called him Thatch like everyone else. Under mild duress, he would comb a hand through his hair and had, in the few minutes with Winkle, already transformed his mop into a brush. And now, as he juggled his glass of warm beer, his smile was becoming a grimace.

They were surrounded by the other participants, perhaps a hundred biologists, giddy at being let out of their labs and presented with free alcohol, all jammed into this small room for the reception in honour of Professor Earith. There were few faces Ellie recognised, though, and she felt out of place even before Winkle had captured them, almost wishing she hadn’t attended the conference on intestinal ecology. But then she wouldn’t have met Thatch...

Eventually, the speeches would begin and perhaps allow them to slope off, but for now the impromptu stage across the room was still empty.

“... it’s only because of me that Jim ...”

Ellie clutched her glass of white and edged away from Winkle, seeking refuge behind Thatch, who was still attempting polite attention. But Thatch was sensitive to Ellie’s movements and he rotated until she was alongside again. In turn, Winkle followed Thatch to keep him in range, until they had all swung back to their original positions relative to each other. Each time Ellie tried the same procedure, the dance steps repeated until the three of them had waltzed through a full circle, jostling their neighbours as they went.

The noise and heat levels in the undersized room were rising, fuelled by the press of tipsy bodies. The fug of Wrinkle’s breath continued to envelop Ellie and she felt increasingly trapped and breathless. Her side-step manoeuvre had not worked and it was impossible to walk away without an obvious fight through the crowd. She swigged her wine, and jammed her nose into the glass to find sweeter air, but inhaled her drink instead and suddenly exploded in a fit of violent coughing, managing to spray most of a mouthful over Winkle’s beige shirt.

It shut him up, at least.

Ellie was surprised to find that Thatch hadn’t rushed to clean up the Professor, instead leaning over her until the coughing subsided. When she finally got her breath back and the flush of embarrassment and exertion was leaving her face, she noticed that a small space had developed around them and that the air was clearer. Winkle had vanished.

“Come on. Let’s go outside for a while,” said Thatch, giving their glasses away to a neighbour. He led Ellie towards the exit, forging a route through the onlookers. As they reached the doors, which stood open, a coolness greeted her and she experienced a sense of release: Thatch had parted the sea of red faces for her, and she had been delivered from Winkle’s bad breath and bad manners.

They heard amplified throat clearing and paused at the edge of the room, turning to peer over heads at the stage, where a tall, forty-something woman in a grey trouser suit was standing at the lectern.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if we might start.” She spoke in measured, university-accented English. “I’m Martha Vine and on behalf of the Organising Committee ...”

“Are you OK?” Thatch asked Ellie in a loud whisper. She nodded, and realised they were holding hands.

“Thank you,” she said, and kissed his cheek, feeling today’s bristles prickle her lips, and a corresponding prickle of excitement in her centre. When she glanced at Thatch, he was grinning broadly. But then Ellie caught a whiff of foulness and her expression caused Thatch’s grin to vanish, their hands to separate.

Is that me? she thought, horrified. She cupped her hands over her mouth, exhaled and then sniffed. Wine breath, no worse.

And then Winkle was there, pushing past them into the crowd, now an audience, making his way to the front. He was immediately swallowed up by the mass of people, the only sign of his progress being a wave of displacement.

“... welcome you to this special session at 3ZEE, the Third International Conference on Zooenterological Ecology, in honour of our distinguished guest, Professor James Earith.” Martha Vine looked round and smiled, presumably at Professor Earith, somewhere behind her. There was hesitant applause from the audience, and she continued, “If I could call on Professor Avel Wynne-Kell to give the introductory speech ...”

“It’s Wynne-Kell, not Winkle,” whispered Ellie to Thatch. “I thought it was Winkle. His accent ...”

“Winkle?” he said, confusion creasing his face. And then he realised what she meant and laughed, involuntarily, loudly, so that the sound carried all the way to the stage. Heads turned and Martha Vine broke off to look in Thatch’s direction. Ellie shushed him, but they were both fighting back giggles.

“Professor Wynne-Kell, ladies and gentlemen.” This time the applause was more assured as Martha Vine gave way to Wynne-Kell, but there was consternation as it became apparent the lectern was too high. Guilty laughter and chatter spread among the audience until Martha Vine had organised a box for Wynne-Kell to stand on.

“Wonder if it’s a soap box,” said Thatch to Ellie, and their giggles started up again.

Wynne-Kell looked annoyed when his head finally emerged above the lectern, but he quickly gathered himself.

“Hello, everyone. I’m Av Wynne-Kell. Ah, apologies for my appearance,” he indicated his damp shirt, “but one of our younger colleagues just did a remarkably good impression of the reamshoot fish.”

The laughter was more sympathetic this time and a few people looked round in Ellie’s direction. She whispered to Thatch that they should leave, but he leaned over, his breath tickling her ear. “Don’t you want to hear Earith?”

She nodded reluctantly and tuned back into Wynne-Kell’s speech.

“I’ve known Jim Earith and his formidable wife, Helen, for years now.” Wynne-Kell snorted. “Many’s the evening Helen lost patience with us when we were chatting over a brew, in their lovely house, engrossed in some discussion. And when she’s angry ...” The audience chuckled with him.

He went on. “But those discussions led to some interesting science, actually, when Jim followed my suggestion to study the laskid fish and their mysterious intestinal ecology. For a while, we just didn’t know what was going on in there.”

Thatch leaned in again. “It was alimentary, my dear Watson.” Ellie slapped him in the midriff with the back of her hand.

“In fact, you could say that Jim’s amazing discoveries stemmed from my ...”

Ellie shared the unease of the audience as Wynne-Kell continued in this vein: people were shuffling awkwardly, sharing glances. Behind Wynne-Kell, Martha Vine looked edgy.

“Thatch, let’s get out of here,” she said, grabbing his hand and pulling him into the corridor. They marched towards the exit, Ellie’s anger showing in every taut stride.

“God, that man!” she said from between clenched teeth.

“Slow down, Ellie,” pleaded Thatch.

She stopped abruptly, turned to face him. “Do you know, I’m really not sure I want to do this anymore.”

Thatch was crestfallen. He looked down at their hands, joined for the second time that evening. Ellie raised his hand in hers, shaking it.

“Not this,” she said, her mood softening. She kissed the back of his hand. “I mean this whole science thing. I’m not sure I’m cut out for it.”

“Because of Wynne-Kell? He’s—”

“Not just him,” said Ellie. “But it makes you wonder, doesn’t it? He’s somehow become ... I don’t know ... important, or at least self-important. Why do people put up with him? I thought being in science would mean I could avoid ... I mean, I might as well go into banking, or something. At least I’d get a decent salary.”

“But—” Uproar from the reception room interrupted Thatch, and they looked down the corridor to see Wynne-Kell being ejected by the furious crowd, his face interchanging panic and rage. He came to a halt, panting but already recovering his self-possession, near Ellie and Thatch, and the tendrils of his breath began to assault their odour receptors again. Behind him, the fury was subsiding, and someone closed the doors to the room. It was suddenly much quieter.

“Well,” said Wynne-Kell, as much to himself as Ellie and Thatch, “not a bad speech, in fact.” He rolled his shoulders and walked smartly through the exit into the clear evening air.