This story first appeared in the anthology
When It Changed, edited by Geoff Ryman
(Comma Press, 2009)
Since its foundations were laid, less than a year ago, the new Life Sciences building has been rising smoothly, steadily, and quickly enough to pique the faculty board’s paranoia: ‘And the catch is…?’
The new building and its predecessors form a striking triangle. The Past is a handsome, fussy Victorian redbrick near the trunk road. The Present is a serviceable Eighties glasshouse. The Future is an Ayn Rand wet dream, an artfully ‘unplanned’ assembly of geometrical figures. A dome. The corner of a cube. A truncated cone. The building’s elements imply the solids from which they have been cut. In this way, the building promises more than itself. You pause a moment to admire the building and you glimpse a vast, expensive Platonic idea.
Clever windows. Passive-aggressive air conditioning. Goodness knows how they will label its honeycombed levels and intersecting atriums. The university has a love of complex navigational nomenclature. I began my career here in the Past – ‘1860’ carved into the brick above the main entrance – and they still somehow managed to find me a laboratory on Floor 3 1/2. The room in which we’re assembled this morning is almost directly below that old lab (now a multimedia facility) and the sign on the door says 5.5-B – ‘B’ a felt-tipped label stuck inexpertly over a raised plastic ‘C’.
Most of this morning’s meeting has been spent misunderstanding the floor plan of the new building. ‘So, Kevin, microscopy will actually be gaining space.’
Anja is right, as usual. Anja with a ‘juh’. American by birth: surname Sinauer (no relation to the publisher). I try not to catch her eye.
There were no latecomers to this meeting. The marks of institutional preferment are ours for the taking now, in a catfight over square footage and parking space allocation. And I have behaved like a pig, fighting my department’s corner with more fury than sense.
Part of it is frustration.
I got my PhD in 1982. Back then I described myself as an invertebrate physiologist. Each morning I arrived for work at the Department of Invertebrate Physiology. That’s what it said on the door. Since then (and in this I am no different to thousands of others, caught in the headlights of the Molecular Revolution) I have watched as my discipline has been swallowed and swallowed again by dinky new labels, each more nebulous than the last. The moment I got my feet under the lab table, the Department of Invertebrate Physiology was ingested by the Department of Physiological Science. I left to work in France on a CNRC grant; returning ten years later, I found the words ‘Life Sciences’ drilled into a slab of Perspex mounted by the steps of the Present.
What will they call us this time? What have they left themselves? ‘Studies’?
It took two meetings with Human Resources to establish that this year’s mergers, and our staggered expansion into the Future, will be accomplished without redundancies.
‘See?’ Anja Sinauer uncrosses her 10-denier legs and leans across the outspread plan to tap a manicured nail against the edge of the uptilted pyramid. That pyramid is an effective piece of architectural self-aggrandisement. The administration, however, has been wildly underselling it. In HR meetings, Anja calls it ‘the top floor’.
For those in the know, the name makes a kind of buried sense. These days the top floors of most new university buildings are left empty for at least the first couple of years of the building’s life. It being cheaper to expand in an ad hoc way into an existing structure, than to build another annexe. ‘Top floor’ is code for ‘empty’. The pyramid is wired and plumbed, but right now its mezzanines are raw concrete, and its rooms are simply metal tracks set in the floor.
All three edifices – Past, Present and Future – stand near enough to each other that (lest we miss the point) their upper storeys have been connected by big black tubes.
Last month a big black tube appeared above the window of the office I share with Joanne, blocking our already inadequate daylight.
From the outside, even up close, the tube’s tinted plastic is utterly opaque. Anthony, our postgrad assistant, was with me in the office the day it appeared. ‘What I don’t get is why the tubes are so damned black.’
A corridor runs directly above our office. The tube carries it out into space. It slopes very gently over the Saabs and the Audis in the all-star car park below (stellar forces contest these bays: emeritus professors with desks in Zurich and lecture tours planned in the Southern States) and buries itself in the side of the off-balance pyramid which crowns the new Life Sciences building.
No-one is supposed to know about the sheep: descendants of Herdwicks that once grazed this land when it was moor, and the university was but a gleam in our charismatic founder’s eye. A legal tangle over the deeds left the flock with grazing rights in perpetuity, at the same time granting the founders the right to build. Eventually, a secret compromise was reached. Today the sheep are driven unseen along the mirror-coated tubes from building to building, from Past to Present to Future, above the heads of the unsuspecting student body.
As puerile stories go, the one tickling the freshers this year does a better job than most of capturing the heady, deracinated spirit of Life Sciences: an institution that by sheer effort of corporate thinking has torn itself free from mere geography, repudiates in statements of steel and glass naive notions of useful land, and smothers beneath its over-complex signage any hint of home.
His metabolism comprehensively rewired by cannabinol, Roy Sennett weaves a smoky, sleepless, paranoid path from plane to plane, city to city, nation to nation, in the hunt for innovative footwear.
Roy being my last great passion. (‘Not “last”,’ Joanne would say, ‘“most recent”.’ The top shelf of our office bookshelf has become, on her initiative, an unashamed shrine to the efficacy of high self-esteem and neuro-linguistic programming.)
Roy, a native of New York, was employed by a leading international baseball boot manufacturer to seek out and buy interesting tat, and courier it post-haste it to the company’s Brooklyn workshop. This was not stealing, he told me. This was reverse engineering. Having had one or two findings of my own reverse-engineered over the years, usually by ambitious Stateside labs, I took Roy’s irony as a given.
Roy was cocky, loud, gorgeous, and already – less than six hours after flapping and flolloping his way like a stranded fish from the airport to the relative conviviality of Cable Street – stoned out of his mind. Landed in the dead of night by KLM Royal Dutch, he clearly had only hours to live. He was twenty-five. I girded my loins and, with more appetite than affection, I administered the kiss of life.
Incredibly, Roy took to me. We went shopping together. Picture it if you can. Kevin shows Roy around Ted Baker. Poor bastard. A Windsor princeling led through a refugee camp could not have tried to look more serious, more compassionate, more unshockable.
The next day Roy phoned to invite me to a friend’s birthday party. I thought: friend? You’ve been in the country less than a week.
We met early on Cable Street, at a bar, and Roy, who never knowingly undersold anyone, brought me up to speed: ‘She’s the most magnificent monster!’
I understood what he meant as soon as we shouldered our way into the basement of the club. His monstrous friend, in a translucent black dress and killer heels, had seized the dias at the back of the dance floor, where the spotlight lit her up like Madonna as she swayed and tossed her head; not so much dancing, I decided, overcoming my first surprise, as miming what it was like to be herself. Her performance was gorgeously onanistic: a closed loop.
‘I know her,’ I shouted into Roy’s ear.
‘She’s so out there!’ he cried, his erudition crumpling against the sheer wall of her ego.
Anja herself seemed determined not to show the hit. When she could no longer avoid acknowledging me, she gave me the vaguest of have-we-met smiles. Only her eyes betrayed her, retreating into her skull for a second – a trick of the wheeling lights – as though tugged by a muscle.
Three doors down from our labs there is a cupboard. Or rather, an architectural oversight with a door. It doesn’t appear on any of the blueprints, it doesn’t have a room number, and for a while – the joke palling quickly under the onslaught of Harry Potter-related hype – it was nicknamed Room 93/4.
We didn’t need a cupboard. We needed another workplace – so we made it into one. A wide fitted shelf doubles as a desk. There is room for someone to sit down in front of a computer, and for a colleague to peer over their shoulder at the screen. Communities of Drosophila maggots are stacked in petri dishes behind the base of the Anglepoise lamp, where even I can’t contrive to knock them over.
Anthony takes a maggot from a dish and fixes it to the end of a matchstick, immobilising it with a strip of paraffin film. It’s close work: the grey-white maggots are small, one could sit happily camouflaged on the milky rim of your fingernail. They are like balloons – the skin is tough but the insides are jelly. They burst easily. Even the best wrapping tends to distort a maggot’s shape. It took Anthony weeks to perfect his experimental routine. By then he had figured out, pretty much by intuition, which end was the head and which the tail.
Next to Anthony’s workstation, taking up fully half of our secret laboratory, stands a heavy trolley with lockable wheels. Its metre-square work surface floats on a bed of engine oil. In this way, things on the table are insulated from vibration. (The fan cooling the CPU under Anthony’s desk. The hum of the fluorescent light. Sounds from the plumbing. Footfalls.) On it stands a heavy tripod. Anthony clamps the matchstick to the tripod and slides the Leica into place.
The electrode is mounted in a vise. Small adjustments bring it into line with the maggot’s ‘head’. Turning the final wheel brings the needle into contact with the maggot’s skin. Though the tip is too fine to see without the aid of the microscope, still the tegument resists a moment, denting and buckling before it pops, and the needle is inside.
Only now does Anthony turn on the speakers mounted in the upper rear corners of the room. The din issuing from them is terrific. Gunshots. Mortar fire. This blitzkrieg is the electromagnetic spill from Anthony’s hand, as he adjusts the position of the needle, easing it into the maggot’s ‘nose’.
When he takes his hand away, the noise diminishes. Half a cardboard box wrapped in bacofoil – our cheap-and-cheerful Faraday cage – insulates the maggot still further: now, at last, there is peace.
The components of the smell of rotting fruit are well known. Aldehydes. Ketones. Droppered onto cotton wool and offered up to our maggots, singly or in combination, they tell us what the maggots can smell, and what scents they are attracted to. Anthony nudges a cotton bud into place, settles back as comfortably as he can, and listens in.
Pebbles stir and sweep.
Once I was showing a group of schoolchildren around our rooms. I paused in the corridor, let them peer into Room 93/4 (they loved that), and asked them to guess the meaning of this sound. The ocean swirl of raw sensation.
Invited to explain, Anthony caught my eye and smiled his malign smile. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is the sound of a maggot’s anguish.’
We’ve known for a long time that we construct, from confused evidence, much of what we see and hear. Smell, on the other hand, never seemed to require such complex explanation. The short-hand used in school textbooks really did appear to capture, with reasonable accuracy, what we thought went on. Differently shaped aromatic molecules fit into differently shaped receptors on the tongue or in the nose. Smelling is simply a question of matching locks to keys, and there is an exact, one-to-one match between chemical reality and olfactory sensation.
Drosophila maggots have just 21 olfactory sensory neurons, making them ideal experimental animals. There is even a laboratory-bred strain that has only one receptor. It was Anthony’s job, having passed our rigorous round of interviews and reference checks, to sit in 93/4, hour after hour, week after week, listening to the roar and backwash of that single cell.
Sealed in his cupboard, Anthony toiled, trying to isolate the signal we were after: a maggot’s quantum of sensation.
Drosophila doesn’t lay its eggs on just any old piece of fruit. The female searches out the type of fruit she remembers from when she was a maggot. Smell and memory are connected in Drosophila as surely as they were in Marcel Proust, who unlocked, in the taste of a Madeleine dipped in tea (a filthy habit), seven unwieldy volumes of roman à clef.
One Friday afternoon, as Joanne was leaving, Anthony greeted her with a mordant ‘eureka’, pulling at his cheeks and dropping his jaw in the manner of Edvard Munch’s Scream.
If different aromatic molecules latch on to different olfactory receptors, then Anthony’s larvae, each boasting but a single receptor, should only have been able to smell one smell. Anthony had discovered otherwise. He reckoned his virtually noseless maggots were noticing every smelly cotton bud he put in front of them: a selection representing the entire spectrum of maggot food sources.
‘The stunted little fuckers,’ he said, ‘are noticing everything.’
At 1pm, Anja Sinauer logs out of the admin server, pulls her tote bag from under her desk and heads for the women’s toilets.
Behind the locked cubicle door, she sheds her shoes, rolls down her hose and knickers, and drops them into her bag. She undoes her bra through her sweater. She disentangles herself easily, used to this routine, and draws the bra out through her left sleeve. The brassiere follows the rest of her underwear into the bag.
Leaving the lavatory, Anja climbs the stairs to the top floor, takes a magnetic card out of the front pocket of her bag, and swipes her way through a fire door and into the tube.
The incomprehensible blackness of these postmodern footbridges is nowhere apparent from the inside. Here the tubing is bright and clear – the Lord only knows how quickly the sun’s ultraviolet will fog, smear, cloud or otherwise ruin such exotic material.
The tube slopes very gently down towards the pyramid crowning our new Life Sciences building. The view from here is spectacular, vertiginous, and very subtly blue-shifted, glamorizing the car park, the annexes, and the trunk road beyond. The walkway itself is the only part of the tunnel that is not transparent – a narrow strip of non-slip rubber, down which Anja cannot help but stalk, hips a-sway with the effort of landing one high-heeled foot precisely in front of another: a gymnast treading the beam.
The pyramid is empty, raw, without coverings or furnishings: the arena for a sport yet to be invented. A while ago I swiped two stacking chairs from the back of a lecture hall. In a space meant eventually to house a hundred people, these chairs are the only furniture.
Anja and I say very little to each other. Whatever needs we satisfy here are sufficiently dissimilar that discussing them would only engender boredom.
Away from the windows (though these too are mirrored) Anja takes off her clothes. The red compression marks left by her underwear have virtually disappeared. This detail hardly matters to me, armed as I am with a mere handful of sweaty HB pencils. But it is a habit she has acquired: a bit of professional business.
Roy and Anja went to the same art school in New York. Modelling Roy’s graduate show was Anja’s first ‘gig’. I would like to be able to say that this was only the beginning of Anja’s birthday confidences, the night of her birthday; that, having left the club with Roy and me and a couple of her other friends to find something to eat, she warmed to me. As it is, her smile, whenever we pass each other in the corridors of Past and Present, is perceptibly no less chilly that it was when she started working here.
Still, there must be more than professional courtesy behind her agreeing to this arrangement. To stand and sit and recline here, in the cavernous and none-too-warm spaces of the Future, unclothed, self-abandoned, and oh, so closely observed.
The last thing she is, is naked. She is no more stripped by taking off her clothes than a cannon is stripped when the screen of camouflaging branches is pulled clear of the muzzle. Naked, she is fully armed. I am not so far gone that I cannot remember that feeling: the body as a source of power.
I would like to pretend that some of these important insights into Anja Sinauer’s character and motivations will make it into my sketches. But I cannot claim much capability. By sheerest intuition, I can just about make clear on paper the difference between the front end and the back end. I draw what I see, which is to say, I get everything wrong.
Studying an early effort, Joanne’s tight-lipped comment was: ‘I suppose you don’t like women very much, do you?’
It was a portrait of Roy.
Seeing the amateurishness of my work, Anja would be well within her rights to call a halt to this: ‘Are you drawing? Are you looking? Or are you just staring?’ Luckily, and thanks to Roy, I come to her pre-vetted: a harmless queer whose difficult ideas team like lice beneath terrible hair: ‘Indulge him, Anja darling, everybody else does.’
We have called our paper ‘Peripheral OR Response Profiles in larval Drosophila melanogaster: a Fuzzy Approach’.
I am almost apologetic when I explain to people what we’ve found: the way a Drosophila smell receptor reacts strongly to one aroma, mildly and intermittently to others. If I were an ambitious thirty-year-old I’d be completely brash and self-confident about the complexity we’ve unearthed. I’d make it my career. ‘We construct what we smell!’ I’d bore everybody’s pants off. On the other hand, if I was an embittered old git, I’d probably feel the same, but with a huge dose of desperation stirred in. As it is, and from the equivocal vantage point of middle life, my best bet seems to be to play up my dull, English embarrassment.
Anthony feels more reserved still. He has spent weeks, on his own, in a cupboard, listening to the neural meanderings of dying maggots. I know what he is afraid of. He is afraid that, come publication, we are going to be killed. Our experiments will be repeated – most likely by some hostile rival in the States – and it will turn out that our fuzzy peripheral responses possess no more reality than Lovell’s Martian canals. Our careers will be over, and it will be Anthony’s fault, and everyone will know.
‘Can anyone tell me why the damned thing has a nose at all?’ He swirls the dregs of his Frobisher’s Red Orange around in its bottle. It catches the low afternoon light: a little liquid sun, aflame against the thick brown ground of the varnished table where we sit, hunched towards each other, like conspirators.
I am too old for shame, and am working my way through my second San Miguel. Joanne has already downed her caffe latte.
‘It hatches out onto its food source. It’s small enough it will never exhaust its food source. What does it need a nose for?’
The maggot does not need a nose. The fly does. The fly must lay its eggs on the same food source that sustained it when it was a maggot. In this way, good moves are perpetuated from generation to generation.
All the same, the maggot’s sense of smell, as we have modelled it – so complex, so sensitive, so responsive to circumstance – seems worryingly ornate. Our elders and betters – professors whose theories of lock and key have won them enviable parking spots in universities bigger and better than this one – will not be slow to comment.
At least Nature has come on-side.
We have nailed down our findings as best we can. But we have to remain realistic. Far from generating knowledge, at this early stage we are simply adding to the uncertainties troubling the field.
‘Of course, it could be that Drosophila has a really lousy sense of smell,’ Joanne says. ‘Really shoddy, I mean. Hopelessly unreliable. God, what if we’ve spent the last three months of our lives trying to systematize its mistakes?’
Anthony laughs. His time with us so far falls into equal halves. Weeks spent in a cupboard trying to scrub the white noise off an elusive signal. Weeks in the same cupboard analyzing the shape and frequency of the very noise we had asked him to erase. No wonder Joanne’s idea delights him. That the maggot knows no better than he does, what it is smelling, or why. That maggots, too, are prey to the hopeful artefact.
I keep my sketches zipped into a separate compartment of my briefcase. I know myself too well. It is well within my declining powers to substitute life sketches for hand-outs at an inopportune moment.
At home, I lay the drawings out.
Anja Sinauer is an American. A native of New York. An arts school graduate. An exuberant dancer. A dyke, or at any rate, a fag-hag. An ex-model. A manager in the human resources department of a major English university. An exhibitionist. A glorious monster. An unfriendly person. Prejudices, truisms, misinterpretations, assumptions and guesses. And as for the drawings!
The art manuals say that the feeling of not being able to draw is merely the sensation that accompanies the act of drawing. Biology teaches a very similar lesson, as poor Anthony has discovered. Biologists know virtually nothing about anything. They hurl themselves giggling into the muchness of things and return – when they return at all – with buckets brimming over with half-truths, experimental artefacts and doubts. Anthony had better get used to the feeling. If he’s any good, it is going to become his constant companion. His compass, and his conscience.
Were I to devote every hour of the rest of my life to capturing the truth about Anja Sinauer, I would fail. If I substituted oils for pencils, or learned how to be a better artist, or took a magic pill that turned me into a great artist – it still wouldn’t make any difference. The outcome, the failure, would be the same. The truth is real enough. But truth is a seam too rich to be exhausted.
Last year, after twenty years spent tracing the activity of single cells, and listening to the ecstatic rush and curl of another animal’s being, and prompted, perhaps, by my boyfriend then – Roy, for whom human surfaces were the walls of his pleasurable world – I felt in need of reassurance. I needed to know that the uncertainties I worked among were not mere artefacts. I wanted to be sure that the difficulties I faced were, at their core, general and ordinary. A professional observer, I needed a way to return, now and again, to simpler processes, more natural, more direct ways of working. So I picked up a pencil, and started to draw.
I am by now, jokes aside, tolerably competent. You would recognize her, from the drawings I have made today.
In one, Anja is sitting with slumped shoulders, her legs apart, her elbows resting on her knees. It is an attitude of exhaustion.
There is an intelligence in her look that I recognize. It is a look I steer away from in those dreadful HR meetings of hers. (And after all, how are we supposed to take seriously a woman who says – by way of invitation to her lair – ‘I’ll arrange sandwiches’? A woman whose annual report was entitled ‘Enabling the Delivery of Excellence with Impact’?)
Recorded here, too, there is an appetite I am not built to match, any more than her other friends were, that night on Cable Street. I wonder now, thinking back to how magnificently she grandstanded under those lights, whether anywhere but Cable Street could have tolerated her. Had there been enough other women there they would surely have torn her limb from limb.
What else? There is a softness to her jawline – but that is all wrong, an artefact, I see now, of my tentative technique.
My hope is that, with practice, the many misfirings of my mind and hand and heart may yet come to an accommodation, so that I may capture – just about, and almost purely by chance – the spark of life.
My only foray into the art world: a collaborative installation for Punchdrunk’s Tunnel 228. Click the picture for more.