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From the LabLit short story series

Rebecca Nesbit 30 January 2019

She thinks about resonance and light energy absorbed by the fabric, but then worries that saying this out loud might make her seem crazy

Picture this. Bags scattered, on their side, in piles, on trolleys. They’re surrounded by anxious people, angry people, people who feel their veneer of calm preparing to crack. It’s the lost and found department at Berlin Tegel airport, an inauspicious place for emotions to be running high.

The people are as scattered as the bags, all facing in different directions – there are no staff to focus their attention. They have come from different places – award ceremonies and 7th birthday parties, luxury resorts and campsites – but they are rendered equal by the chaos of lost baggage.

A woman picks through the cases in search of her own. Like hers, most are black. Many are decorated with ribbons or bright strips of fabric, which now serve as reminders of a time when quick identification on the carousel seemed like an important issue. She comes to a metallic green suitcase just as a child clasps the handle. The girl, who must weigh no more than the case, looks up at her father. “Let’s take this one!”

“Leave it alone, it’s not ours.”

The girl doesn't immediately let go, and when she does her hands linger. Why search for a black case when you’ve found one that is so beautiful? She tugs on her father’s sleeve.

“Why are the suitcases opaque?”

He doesn’t pause from his search. “So nobody can see inside.”

He’s entirely correct, but the answer feels inadequate. The woman tries to formulate a better response. She thinks about resonance and light energy absorbed by the fabric, but then worries that saying this out loud might make her seem crazy. So instead she wonders what people wouldn’t want her to see in their suitcases, hoping this would reveal that everyone else is crazy too. Mostly underwear and toothbrushes she thinks, though only because that’s what she most wants from her own. Little does she know that each time she checks a label her hands are passing close to a toy for a pet rat, the tangled cables of a moth trap, a new sou’wester, 5.5kg of Assam tea…

Suddenly she sees a small black bag with a BA bronze card attached, and her insides leap with the kind of joy which can only come out of adversity. The bag is partly hidden below a pushchair and a parcel labelled ‘sports equipment’, so she hauls it out, surprised by its weight. She checks the name on the tag and her joy is immediately crushed.

She straightens up and looks around, wishing she had been more systematic with her search. Only when she had checked every single bag would she leave the airport, but maybe it was time for a break. The father is clearly having the same thoughts; he is checking each bag with a look of exhaustion while trying to stop a flow of questions from his daughter.

The initial answer of ‘so nobody can see inside’ still bothers the woman – she doesn’t want the child to think that the world is this way because that’s how people want it to be. She crouches down next to the girl. “We can only see things because light bounces off them…” The explanation lacks some scientific detail, but the girl’s enthusiasm encourages the woman to continue. When she’s about to use the word photon, however, she sees herself from the perspective of the other passengers. A stranger talking to a 7-year-old about quantum particles.

“Sorry,” she says to the father.

He smiles, revealing that beyond his persona of frustrated passenger he’s actually quite attractive. “Please, go ahead.”

The woman continues to talk about things which light can travel through, such as glass and ice, and things which some colours of light can travel through, like diluted squash. At the mention of drink, the girl’s attention is lost.

“Daddy, I’m thirsty.”

The father rummages in his backpack and produces an empty water bottle. “OK, let’s find a café.” He turns to the woman. “Care to join us?”

They walk in silence to a counter serving pretzels, then all order translucent drinks.

When they’re seated in the florescent lights of the arrivals lounge, the father asks, “What brings you to Berlin?”

“I’m visiting a university to meet collaborators. We’re putting together a big grant, all about the impact of artificial intelligence. Will people lose their livelihoods? Will it free people to work less? What would that mean, if we all had more free time? We’ve already got some papers together, but we need funding to do anything more.”

“Sounds impressive.”

“I’m not feeling good about getting the money. You know, Brexit…”

The father reaches out to stroke his daughter’s hair. “The EU’s not everything, there must be other places to get money.”

“It’s kind of my last attempt. If I don’t get the grant, I’ll think of something else to do. Running children’s parties in optical physics maybe, working as an airline baggage handler.” Neither of them laugh.

“Do you have kids?” he asks.

“Sadly I haven’t met the right person.”

The father studies her, as if assessing how forward he can be with a stranger who has entertained his daughter in lost luggage. “Don't worry, I’m sure that inyeon will come your way.”


“Sorry, we’re on our way back from South Korea, and it is the only word I learnt other than thank you and hello. It is a form of fate, the idea that people are destined to cross paths in a meaningful way. It doesn't have to be the start of a romance, but it can be.”

“Inyeon. I think it’s beautiful.”

“Me too.” There is a silence and his eyes flicker down at his daughter, who is thankfully absorbed in her drink. “It must give you a lot of freedom, not having a family.”

“I guess.”

“What’s so important about papers?”

“You need to publish them to get in the money.”

“You need money to publish papers, to get money so you can publish more papers?”

“That’s not the point. It’s the way we get to do the work, to keep our jobs.” The woman is irritated that the man is too close to the truth.

“Do you really need a massive grant to work on AI? Can’t you do it cheaply, or in your spare time, somewhere else? There must be other ways to explore those questions.”

The woman focusses on the orange of her drink. Which colours had it absorbed, which were reflected?

The man continues. “If you don’t have a family to support you can move to different places, earn less, find other ways to follow your dreams, not in the rigid way that society tells you to. You don’t need to give them up because they’re difficult.”

She looks up from her drink, noticing how the different colours in the father’s eyes come through the transparent membranes of his corneas. She holds his gaze and asks: “What are your dreams?”

“My dreams are less important than my kids.”

“But what are they?”

He is silent for a moment. “When I was a child I always wanted to ride on the Orient Express, to travel through Germany in style, not like this. To eat Turkish Delight on the banks of the Bosporus.”

“When are you doing it?”

The man shrugs. “It’s difficult. You know, children…”

“You don’t need to give up on your dreams because they’re difficult.”



Is this inyeon? There are no marriages, no final showdowns in dark alleyways (though as for the other passengers in lost baggage, who can say). But a small encounter has changed three people’s lives. The woman learnt to be less rigid when finding ways to follow her passion. The man was reminded that his family is a gift and aren’t an excuse not to pursue his dreams. The girl learnt that somebody, somewhere could give an answer to each of her questions, even if she didn’t understand it.

The world isn’t magic. It’s science.