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Experimenting with the senses - Part 2

From the LabLit short story series

Mark Keane 31 January 2016

www.lablit.com/article/890

She would be one in a billion, her name synonymous with scientific breakthrough and the envy of all the other girls in the world

Editor's note: We are pleased to present the second episode of a four-part, gothic short story by chemical engineer Mark Keane. Use the navigation links above right to catch up with Part 1.

But what animal should he get Juliet? Something greater than a wasp and less than a cat. The Professor had troubling associations with cats from his own complicated childhood. He opted for a goldfish.

Juliet was overjoyed by this new addition to the household. She clung to her father’s leg and thanked him repeatedly and breathlessly. He felt awkward and resented her clinging and bodily contact. The Professor was not a tactile man. Juliet’s effusive expressions of gratitude and reference to him as ‘daddy’ served only to exacerbate his vexation. He abhorred all things saccharine.

His instinctive rough manner served to quench Juliet’s euphoria. If anything Beezie was more taken with the fish and she regularly monitored its constrained watery circumlocution. The fish’s magnified concave face and gaping eyes mirrored her own piscine features as she knelt before the bowl. Juliet consulted Professor Prausnitz in choosing a suitable name for her pet. The avuncular academic suggested she apply the Latin and drily informed her that Carassius auratus auratus was the correct trinomial name for her pet. The goldfish was duly christened Carass.

Juliet worried that the fish was bored in its watery home which was so featureless. She dropped miniature pieces of furniture and figurines into the bowl. These were taken from the doll’s house that had been long neglected and cast on the rubbish heap of childhood accoutrement. She held cards coloured ultramarine, magenta and violet at the back of the bowl. She taped pictorial scenes to Carass' glass orb of the mountainous Tyrol and Caribbean beaches that she cut from magazines. Do goldfish have long- or short-range sight, she asked her father. It matters little, he began to say, given their limited intelligence, but abandoned the explanation as it was unbecoming. He knew he should try to be less dismissive in his dealings with Juliet. His daughter did not have an analytical mind but she was imaginative, influenced by her surroundings and susceptible to external stimuli.

The trial run with the goldfish came to an unfortunate conclusion. Beezie discovered the fish one morning floating on the surface of an emerald green sea. Juliet had added nickel nitrate to the water and poisoned Carass. She was stunned by the result of her attempt to brighten the fish’s habitat and add colour to its life. She did not know how to deal with this tragedy and spent hours collapsed against Beezie, sobbing pitifully into the woman’s flaccid breast. The Professor hastily disposed of the dead fish by flushing it down the toilet. He locked the empty bowl with what was left of the nickel nitrate in his cabinet. He discussed this turn of events with Prausnitz. They agreed there should be no more pets. The child seems to have inherited your flair for experimentation, Prausnitz noted. The Professor found his friend’s glibness objectionable. Yet he could not deny that the comment had hit home. Juliet meekly asked if Carass had suffered before dying. He responded with a perfunctory shake of his head.

**********

The Professor took a deep draught from his brandy and savoured the heat that suffused his throat and stomach. Prausnitz lit a cigarette and contemplated the smoke rings he exhaled. They sat in companionable silence, the strains of a Bruckner scherzo barely audible in the background. The laconic Prausnitz enquired about the progress of the Professor’s research. Prausnitz was a biologist, his area of expertise human genetics, sequencing of the genome and the etiology of diseases and cancers. The Professor accepted his friend’s question as a polite enquiry, a conventional sally in their civilised chit chat.

He informed his friend that he was at last making some progress though this was no thanks to the dunderheads he must accept as PhD students. At best they were ham-fisted technicians who failed to follow the most detailed instructions. Bereft of knowledge, logic or work ethic, he snorted derisively. Prausnitz nodded in knowing sympathy. We are producing a generation of confident morons, he concurred. The two academics traded apocryphal examples of the crass stupidity of their students.

The Professor then spoke about his success in preparing synthetic organometallic compounds that mimicked biologically active molecules. Prausnitz listened without interruption, his head angled to one side and shrouded in smoke from his cigarette. The Professor grew increasingly earnest as he spoke, his manner typical of those research chemists who assigned an inflated importance to their cooking of chemical ingredients. Prausnitz, he declared, you can appreciate the implications of this work, the inherent possibility of manipulating the human sensory mechanism. All for the greater good of course in terms of medical treatment, he added hastily. The addendum was not delivered with any great conviction and faded into muttering and indistinct humming. The Professor feigned annoyance at the cigarette smoke and waved his hand fiercely to disperse the blue cloud.

Prausnitz was not surprised by the unwarranted tetchiness. His friend was a volatile individual and particularly sensitive when it came to his research. Prausnitz sustained an amicable tone with encouraging comments that massaged the Professor’s not inconsiderable ego. He asked how he proposed to test the efficacy of his compounds. There you have it, Prausnitz, the Professor responded vigorously, as always you arrive at the nub of the matter. What is required is human testing but where am I to find suitable subjects, my hands are tied. Prausnitz joked tepidly that he could always employ the more hapless of his students as guinea pigs. If they can’t contribute to scientific knowledge by research they should at least serve as proxy laboratory animals.

The Professor raised his head abruptly, his eyes shining and fixed on some distant point. If only that was possible, he murmured. Prausnitz fancied his companion’s thoughts had taken him far outside the smoke-filled study. The Professor pulled himself together with a visible effort and the conversation returned to more prosaic matters though the discourse was forced and factitious. Prausnitz thought to himself that his friend was a rum fish but mentally edited this observation. Reference to fish was probably inadmissible in that house.

**********

The Professor struggled with strategies to enlist Juliet as assistant. He couched his plan in terms of a game that must be kept secret from Beezie. This only confused the girl. Prausnitz was correct, he had no knack when it came to communicating with children. Not that he was particularly adept at interacting with adults. Since her misdemeanour which had closed his laboratory and her murder of Carass, he could see Juliet wished to please him. He should exploit this. Juliet’s yearning for her father’s approval was so naked it was painful to witness.

In the end he asked her directly if she would like to help him with his research. Her collaboration was crucial to ensure a major scientific discovery. She squealed with delight, skipping about his study, repeating the words scientific discovery, scientific discovery. He strained to calm her, suppressing his innate reaction to shut her up with a gruff admonishment. This was a matter of science, he instructed her gravely, and there was no place for childish behaviour. If she was to assist him she must behave like an adult. She must be calm, success was dependent on her judgement. They would be partners on the project. Father and daughter working to deliver knowledge of importance beyond her wildest imagination.

Juliet crouched on the ground and stared wide-eyed at her father. She would be a unique little girl. One in a billion, her name synonymous with scientific breakthrough and the envy of all the other girls in the world. But their work must remain secret. The Professor leaned forward, his eyebrows like hairy larvae jutting from his forehead. You do understand, he whispered. Juliet nodded, her mouth ajar. Her face was flushed and the Professor could make out the scar over her eye. Above all Prausnitz must never hear of this. Juliet nodded and picked at her nose. Great discoveries were always shrouded in secrecy. Once they had secured the results and necessary proof all would be revealed. Juliet would be a hero and crowned a princess.

The Professor knew he was laying on the hyperbole rather thickly but his plans had to remain covert. He brusquely dismissed Juliet as he had to prepare for the upcoming tests. He was not entirely satisfied he had recruited an able assistant. If not particularly able, she would assist.

To be continued...