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Free time

From the LabLit short story series

Sarah Whalley 28 June 2016

My brain was like a hibernating computer, constantly calculating algorithms within the subconscious chambers of my mind

I agreed to more wine. I was accepting another glass of vintage Rioja in the home of Professor Morgavi.

I repeated that sentence in my head as I swirled the velvet liquid around the walls of my mouth. Soon after the alcohol had run down and entered my bloodstream, I felt my brain cells depart and limbs lighten. But I did not care. My girlfriend, Caitlin, and I had been invited into the family home of Joseph Morgavi, the world's leading expert in my field. You could say a line had already been crossed. I had been invited to gain a glimpse of his true self, so I did not mind revealing a glimpse of mine.

His wife, Jess, ensured we had plenty of everything, and she refilled the bowl of my wine glass to the brim. From across the circular oak table, I could see Caitlin staring at me. It was a familiar expression which I vaguely interpreted as 'what the shit are you doing?' She was right, of course, to stare at me wide-eyed like that. Statistically speaking, Caitlin was always right. Until that night I had been teetotal, and here I was accepting the remaining contents of the Morgavis' generously-sized carafe.

"Here's to your permanent post, Tom. At last. I knew you would join the institutional ranks from the day I read your third-year paper on the cooling of turbine blades using surface plasma." He spoke with heartfelt paternal pride and raised a toast: "To Dr Taylor!"

"I couldn't have done it without you, Professor," I said with a warmth and sincerity I usually suppressed.

"Please, call me Joe."

He was a younger, carefree version of himself against the backdrop of his family home. His Victorian terrace was populated with objects imported from a collection of worldly travels, and each cavernous room was decorated with North African furnishings: coarse fabrics, wooden floors, burnished emulsions.

It was defamiliarising to see Morgavi – this man who told me to call him Joe – in this context, wearing loose linen clothing. He looked like a free spirit. This was not the sartorial Morgavi with a reputation for operating like a perfectly calibrated machine. This was not the Principal Investigator who had secured research funding to lead national experimental facilities. This was not the senior academic who had strategically written me into his major grants and made me indispensable to the faculty's financial health. This was Joe who was married to Jess who insisted that my wine glass remained permanently topped up.

"Jess and I will let you in on a secret, both of you. You must enjoy your life. You must drink fine wine, travel the globe, relax on weekends. Don't let the demands of your careers stop you from living."

Caitlin fired a look of bewilderment in my direction. The lack of quality time together was an underlying tension in our relationship. My research was an all-consuming vocation and I considered free time to be a rarefied commodity. When we did carve out work-free windows to visit family or take long walks, Caitlin accused me of always thinking, even when I appeared to be relaxing. My brain was like a hibernating computer, constantly calculating algorithms within the subconscious chambers of my mind. Through years of studying the real-world application of mathematical theories, I had rewired the architecture of my brain to constantly process complex algebra. If they dissected my brain, they would find the remains of numbers and symbols scattered within the parietal lobe.

"You look puzzled or amused by this advice."

"I just can't quite believe that you would say that." I said the first thing that came into my head. The alcohol must have damaged my inhibitory interneurons, because I continued to freely empty the contents of my mind: "You are the most successful academic in the University. How do you have any time for yourself?"

"Time is a resource no different from laboratory consumables, Tom: it must be measured and used economically wherever possible. Time is so often wasted on long, pointless meetings and trips to the coffee room." He had learned to splice the working week into clever compartments and compress a day's work into a few hours. His ability to construct a compact schedule meant that he could effortlessly balance committees with lectures, and grant proposal submissions with moderating exam papers. All this contributed to Morgavi's reputation as an exceptional individual. Throughout his career he had generated increments of time to invest in his personal life. Morgavi delivered a masterclass in time management. It made my brain fizz.

It was 11 PM and the room had started to spin. Caitlin ordered a cab and we gathered our coats in preparation to leave. As Jess and Caitlin chatted to one another in the hallway, Morgavi asked me to follow him upstairs.

"I have something to show you." He led me into his study – not the glamorous library with furnished oak panelled walls that I imagined it would be. It had whitewashed walls and contained no books. The desk was covered with unfiled paperwork. It was like an outpost for a lifetime of clutter. But he had not brought me here to show me the underside of his expert productivity. He had brought me here to show me what looked like a fax machine purchased in the nineties.

"I built this myself 20 years ago." Of course, I should have known: machine-building could be added to his extensive portfolio of hobbies. He pressed a few large buttons on the side panel. It made a high pitched, warbling sound as it connected to the Internet and whirled into action.

"This is the real secret to my success, Tom."

"What is it, Prof – ...Joe?"

He entered another code which set the machine into an agitated rhythm of convulsive movements. A few moments later it spit out a stapled document. My name was at the top: Taylor, T. It was a research proposal of some sort. I read the first page and my research interests were articulated with a finesse I struggled to hone.

"But this is an Early Career Grant proposal."

"You are welcome."

"How did you –?"

"This is the Great Automatic Academic Writing Machine. If you input your research interests and experimental results, it will scan the Web and ensure these are perfectly configured with all publications, funder requirements, whatever it is you need."

I could not believe what I was hearing. It was disturbing. It was brilliant. Could alcohol make you hallucinate?

"I constructed this contraption when my children were little. It took me a solid six months to build but it has rewarded me ever since with free time."

"So, has every publication and grant proposal submission that you have written been produced through this machine?"

"It does anything I want it to do. With a fleet of postdocs to churn out the publications, I only use it for grant proposals. The problem is, the mechanism is dated: it is clunky and in danger of breaking. We need something slicker, perhaps with a wireless connection and a smartphone application." He had casually switched from the singular first person pronoun – and I didn't think he was deploying the royal 'we'.

"I want to bring you in on the act, Tom. Help me to build a new one. We can share all the papers and grant proposals it generates."

Jess and Caitlin were calling my name from the bottom of the stairs. I stumbled out of the room feeling nauseous, pressing my hand against the wall for balance. I carefully walked down the staircase, monitoring each step, unsure whether or not I could make it.

"Tell me you will think about it!" cried Morgavi as I reached the last step. I grabbed Caitlin's arm and stumbled into the street.

I was never drinking alcohol again.