Toni wanted to laugh. It was absurd: how could the scientist miss the whole thing; the shouting, the air so heavy with emotion?
“Doesn’t seem like it, does it?”
Toni tried to keep her voice normal, but she stared at Sabine, almost challenging her. Go after him, she wanted to say: show him you care. But all that came out was, “Previous plans, maybe?”
Her voice trailed off. Sabine appeared to try to compose herself before she could attempt to address Michel, who had set the wine glass down on the table next to Max’s beer glass, and sat down on the opposite side, still seemingly oblivious.
“Would you like to sit over here, Sabine?” he asked.
Sabine looked back to Toni, turned to the door, and spun back round to Michel.
“I’m sorry Michel. I had forgotten that I had plans… I need to go, so sorry about the wine.”
She turned and walked out of the pub, her heels tapping fast on the floor. Michel frowned but remained seated. Toni realized she was left with a decision: sit back down where she had been—next to him—or go round to the seat Max had just left. It would be awkward sharing the same side of the booth, she thought. It would look like a date. So she reached for her glass and moved it across the table and sat down. If she had thought it was going to be hard to talk to Michel before, it seemed even stranger now. She fiddled with her phone, toying with the idea of calling Max and cancelling the whole deal. But then, when would she get another chance like this?
“I guess she remembered something.” She waited for him to respond, to show some sign that he was as embarrassed as she was, but Michel just let his gaze rest on the door. Clearly this was not going to be an easy conversation. It wouldn’t be the first difficult interview she’d ever done: the trick was to stay focussed on him.
“What made you go into research?”
Michel took a sip of his beer. He kept his eyes on the door. Toni had to use all her willpower to keep from turning to see what he was looking at. She began to think he had not heard, when at last he spoke:
“Made. That is a good word. What made me go into research. What made me do anything.” Suddenly he breathed out, seemed to relax. “I like ideas. Solving puzzles. Taking things apart to see how they work. It is an uncovering of order.”
A pause. And nothing more. Toni had a sudden image of driving, stalling at a roundabout, and trying to restart the car as commuters fumed behind her. Try again.
“So, is Holland much different from the UK?”
“The Netherlands,” he said, emphasizing the correction, “is like any place. It has people, who are the same wherever.” Another sip. Another pause. “But yes, there are differences.”
In her mind, one of the angry commuters blew their horn. She was going to have to try harder—perhaps more beer would loosen him up? Perhaps she should try that famous Toni charm, a bit of flirting? Given the man’s response to more obvious cues, though, that didn’t seem promising.
“So, would you go to the pub after work with someone? Someone who isn’t special?”
Michel shrugged. “In the Netherlands, everyone drinks. People go to the bar after work, sometimes during work.”
“But you? You did not go to the wake, after Charlotte’s funeral?”
“I mean, it’s not as if you needed someone to go with?”
“I had to work.”
Ah…the engine coughed; fired.
“Do you not have any family?”
The noise level in the pub dipped and increased again. Michel watched the four or five couples who had just come in make their way over to another group in the corner.
“No,” he said at last, his voice low. “I have no family.”
“I’m sorry. Perhaps that was insensitive. I am curious, you see, how you—I mean all of you—do it. Such long and tiring hours, it must be difficult to have a personal life?”
No answer. She continued,
“Would you say research demands a lot of passion?”
Michel blinked, looked straight at Toni for several long seconds, then returned his gaze to the door. She shifted in her seat. Was this going to be worth it?
“Passion,” he said eventually. “You might call it passion. It is an imperative. I have to do it.”
“Do you find it easy to make friends?”
“No. People tend to find me difficult.” The corners of his mouth turned up briefly, and Toni realized this was the closest she had seen to a smile. But something about the way his face creased made her heart beat faster.
“I—” she began, and stopped. Breathed deeply. “So, do people make friends within the lab? Close friends, I mean? You spend quite a bit of time together.”
“It happens, yes. Our lab might be different. Sabine is seeing the accountant, Max. Professor Slater has a wife.”
“But you? You do not have a girlfriend?”
“I do not have a girlfriend.”
She wanted to ask him, did you? but she could sense he was beginning to close up again—not so much a stalled car as a wild and nervous animal she had to tame—and changed the subject:
“Okay, let’s talk about your work, if we may. Is it hard to research viruses?”
“No harder than researching anything else.”
“I mean, can you forget about how dangerous they are? Could you make it more virulent, forget that you’re working with something deadly?”
Michel leaned back in his chair, that crease on his cheek reappearing.
“Every time we work with live virus that can infect humans we have to wear gowns and masks and go into a special room. We call it P3. It is hard to forget that something is dangerous when you have to work like that.” Suddenly he leaned forward, placed his palms on the table. “But most of the time we do not work with live, or even whole viruses. We work with little bits of them.”
“You chop them up?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes. We make their individual proteins in tubes and see how they behave.”
“And those proteins, they are not dangerous?”
Michel shook his head. “Not usually, no. You have no context, nothing for them to do until you pack them with the other bits, with the genetic material. The reductionist approach is powerful but we molecular biologists sometimes forget that our little molecules like to be with their friends.”
“So you do forget? Do you get so absorbed, then?”
“It is absorbing,” Michel said. “Which is why we have protocols and risk assessments. But I meant that we forget that our little protein is just one piece of the puzzle.”
“And are you looking for other pieces?” Toni put down her glass, let her hand rest by Michel’s. Maybe this would work.
“Sometimes. Sometimes there is so much that being absorbed is all you can do.”
“And do you have all the pieces for the virus, what was it called, chicken fever?”
“Yes, that’s it! How do you remember these things?” She didn’t wait for an answer, but pushed on, sensing a breakthrough, “Chikungunya. That is what killed Charlotte, isn’t it?”
Michel frowned, crossed his arms.
Shit, thought Toni, too much too soon.
But Michel carried on:
“Chikungunya is not normally fatal. It is transmitted by mosquitos. Like I say, we have the protocols, the gloves and the masks, the P3. It is impossible. We were as surprised as anyone else that Charlotte caught it.” He paused; swallowed hard. “And then. It is not dangerous. When she died. When she died—”
“Michel. I am sorry. I should not have mentioned it.”
The Dutchman stood up. “It is okay, Toni. I am being rude, though. May I offer you another drink?”