The following fiction, Enlightened, was written for a short-story competition run by the Diamond Light Source and is featured in their anthology, Light Reading. I hope you enjoy reading it but please don’t try and steal it. Thanks.
High above Oxfordshire’s Ridgeway, a Red Kite circled, hungrily looking for its breakfast. As it soared through the air, the first rays of an early sun warmed its back, which felt good after a long autumn night. The kite looked down at a huge circular building below; the curved, corrugated roof made it look like a gigantic ammonite wedged into the middle of the glorious green landscape. He wondered why on earth they had painted it grey. Eyes that can see the tiniest movement on the distant ground below see things differently and from his viewpoint the building buzzed with energy and should have been painted orange, perhaps even red. This troubled the bird, but only for a moment, because he had more pressing concerns on his mind. The main thing he was trying to decide on was just what exactly it was he fancied eating that morning.
The sound of birds shrieking outside barely registered in Jane’s ears over the sounds of the finest coffee’s, outside of Starbucks, being filtered through her machine. Other people could use it because they had insisted on putting it here in the break room, rather than in her own lab, but still, Jane felt it was hers. Jane had campaigned long and hard to get this machine installed. How could anyone survive on instant in an environment like this anyway? Slowly but surely she had pulled on the facilities team’s purse strings until they had finally snapped and now here it was, in all its beautiful, caffeine-rich glory. Jane loved it, and, as far as she was concerned, it loved her too. She secretly called it Gavin because she believed that Gavin was a strong name, a handsome name. Gavin sounded dark and tasty, tight and firm, hot and oh so smooth. Jane really loved that coffee machine.
Revelling in the feeling of optimistic potential that the aroma from her drink exuded, the pale graduate sat herself back at her seat, tied her long, mousy hair back in a knot and attempted to focus her mind back to more important matters: breakfast. It would just about be ready by the time the coffee was drunk. Indeed, as the last dregs were drained from the cup, Jane declared her Pot Noodle ready, un-wrapped her Curly Wurly and used it as a kind of chocolate ‘Spork’. Amused that coffee, curried noodles and chocolate counted as a suitable meal at six o’clock in the morning, Jane set to work balancing boiling hot noodles onto a rapidly melting chocolate lattice. The young scientist momentarily pondered why this combination of flavours worked so well, and how she even discovered them in the first place, but then shrugged her shoulders. Some things in life didn’t need to be understood, she thought, they just needed to be enjoyed.
“Rubbish!” she scolded herself. Of course everything had to be understood. That’s what drew her to Diamond in the first place. She remembered the thrill she felt when she had initially walked over the bridge and into the synchrotron’s vast interior. How lucky she was to have earned this job, and to have been there on that day when the Diamond Light Source opened up its secrets to her. With a giddy yelp of excitement, she had stood on the yellow line that marked out the electron’s circular path, concreted deep below her feet, entranced by the pure, brilliant science, right there beneath her. Jane had thrown herself down and pressed her ear to the floor. Could she hear it? Could she feel it? Jane had promised herself that she would never admit it to anyone, but she rather felt that she could.
The science behind the machine was simple enough, school-girl science. Fire a negative electron through a racetrack of magnets, watch it speed up to almost light speed and then give it a little wiggle. The spectrum of light this creates is huge, not just the visible kind, but every kind from infra-red to ultraviolet which could then easily be siphoned off from the electron beam, because the magnets couldn’t hold it. When the electron beam turned the corner to continue its journey around the racetrack, the light would simply continue forward into the waiting arms of the excited scientists. All they had to do was select which type of light they wanted for their experiment. Jane’s specialism was in using x-ray light, and with a generator as powerful as this, the possibilities seemed endless. The x-rays were stupendously powerful and accurate, so much more so than anything you could get in a standard laboratory, and this allowed her to see into the depths of the tiniest samples of matter with pinpoint accuracy.
The science might have been simple, but the reality of making it work was far from it. Millions of pounds had been spent on this facility and many more would be needed, but it was worth it. The work being carried out here was amazing. One corner of the facility might be ensuring that aircraft stay in the sky and another might be continuing the hunt for cancer cures. Either way their work affected lives – people’s lives. Jane was a part of that and it never failed to lift her mood when she needed it to.
Those first few weeks on site in Diamond had been a blur. The transition from student to scientist had to happen fast because this wasn’t a training lab and mistakes couldn’t be laughed off or ignored. Mistakes cost money. Mistakes could cost lives. It was time to grow up. Other people might have found this daunting but Jane had grown up years ago. She’d never really been a child.
It was the bow-tie that had stopped Jane in her tracks that day about a month after arriving at Harwell. He was just some visiting journalist, no one that Jane had ever heard of, and for that matter she never even found out who he wrote for. She couldn’t remember anything else about him at all. Only the bow-tie.
Jane had frozen to the spot almost immediately with sweat rolling down the nape of her neck. It was the same. Exactly the same. The sight of it instantly transported her back to France. How old was she again? Six? Yes, six. She was transfixed by her father’s bow-tie as he carried her to the car. She wanted it to spin around like a fan, as they did in the cartoons, but it refused to turn no matter how hard she pulled. Her father had laughed and hugged her just that little bit harder. The sun had shone beautifully all day. The visit to the vineyard had been amazing and everyone had enjoyed it. Jane had run all over the place as her parents had taken the tour. Dammit; why had they had to go there? Why?
On holiday, and in the heat of a sun they weren’t used to, Jane’s parents had tasted quite a bit more wine than they should have. Jane remembered, with an odd affection, the way that her father’s breath had smelled as he carried her along on that day, laughing giddily as he spun her around. Eventually they had reached the car. But they never reached the campsite.
Jane shivered at the memory of waking up in a French hospital, confused and alone, aching and desperate to know what had just happened. She had been asleep in the car and had never felt a thing. Why was she here now? Where were her parents? Everyone spoke French and no one would tell her where her mum was, or where her dad was. Nurses just came and checked her bandages and patted her hand, occasionally giving her bread or water. Two confusing, lonely days passed, staring at the cold barren walls and unfriendly children in various states of health. People who could speak English would only ask her how she felt but they would never answer her questions. They would just smile and say not to worry.
When Uncle Frank finally arrived and rushed straight up to her carrying her favourite teddy from home, he didn’t say anything either, he just held her tightly and cried until the message got through; Jane’s parents were dead.
Uncle Frank really never explained much either. He talked of car crashes and of Heaven, but he couldn’t explain why they had died, or why Jane hadn’t. Frank would just give a hug and say that he would worry about it all so Jane didn’t have to. When they got home, Jane would move in with him and go to school near his house. Life would be absolutely fine, no need to worry at all.
In the break room Jane stood up and headed back over to the coffee machine. She knew where this chain of thought would lead next; and for that she would definitely need more caffeine.
Uncle Frank struggled. The loss of his brother hit him almost as hard as the sudden burden of an inherited child, even if it was the niece that he already loved so much. He simply wasn’t ready, wasn’t able to cope. He had no wife, and sitting at nights drinking alone, he could see no way that he would ever find one now. Slowly, resentment had crept into the heart of this once good man. It started with the shouting, and the unreasonable demands. Frank would never explain why Jane was in trouble. He would simply grow angry.
Jane felt alone and confused, never really knowing what to do to keep him happy. The outbursts would come from nowhere over nothing. All Jane could do was cry and wait for the shouting to stop. When bruises started appearing on her body, people began to ask questions. Jane’s school seemed unwilling to accept her stories of cycling accidents and roller skate mishaps.
Then one night, Frank crept into her room.
Back at her table in the break room, Jane thumped her cup back down. No. Not today. Jane would not let her mind go back to that. She couldn’t. She had been through it too many times already. This time she would skip it.
But no one could ever explain why it had happened.
Jane threw herself head first into her schoolwork. As she was relentlessly passed from one foster home to another, Jane dissolved away from the real world, and hunted for answers. In the end, Jane found Science.
Or rather, Science found Jane.
One day, at school, her class did an experiment. They simply put toothpicks into a bowl of water and then watched as their teacher used another soap covered toothpick to break the surface tension on the water, splitting the toothpicks apart. Jane sat with eyes wider than saucepan lids, fascinated by the spectacle.
How could this possibly have happened? The toothpicks had just suddenly flown apart. Then their teacher did something truly amazing.
He explained it.
He told her why.
Science wasn’t scared to answer questions. Science explained why. Sometimes it posed more questions than it answered, but this didn’t matter at all. Jane acquired a thirst for knowledge that just had to be quenched. Far excelling any of her teachers’ and social workers’ expectations, Jane became a star pupil. So rarely had they seen anyone do so well from such a troubled background. But Jane did do well.
Grants, loans, and long nightshifts as a waitress got her through university. Working to pay her way through her degree also meant that she could continue to hide from life. There was no time for a social life, no time for people. As she had done at school, Jane put all her soul into education and nothing at all into relating to the real world. This was absolutely fine by Jane. School books gave answers. Life did not. Real life couldn’t be trusted because it didn’t follow the rules. Science followed rules.
At Diamond, Jane had run out of excuses. She still had work that she could hide in, but somehow it didn’t seem to be a big enough cover. The different areas within Diamond, where different types of experiment were carried out were called villages, and there was something about this that bore deep into Jane’s psyche. Living within a village community demanded a certain amount of participation into the social dynamic. Other people who worked in her village seemed to find ways to talk, to chat and to gossip. Jane’s peers started wanting to meet outside of work too, and Jane no longer had a second job to excuse herself with. It hadn’t been easy, but over time Jane had forced herself to become an active member of the community. Campaigning for the coffee machine had taken a stupendous effort. She had even taken part in the Friday quiz, though she tended to sit at the back and watch, rather than offer any real input into the answers. Time would help. Jane just needed time to repair the damage that years of self-imposed solitude had caused.
“A penny for them?”
The gravelly male voice made Jane jump. Interrupted from her thoughts, she looked around to locate the source of the question.
“Your thoughts? You were miles away, I said ‘Hi’ twice and you were just staring into your coffee cup.”
“Oh, sorry,” Jane replied, “I was just going over some things in my mind. You know how it is. How are you this morning?”
The lead scientist from the visiting research team sat himself down opposite Jane and grinned. He was technically a customer, running the project that Jane had been assigned to, and had spent the last few days hunkered down with the whole team, yet he still looked as fresh as the day he had arrived on campus. From the moment he had entered the building it had lit up as far as Jane was concerned. He wasn’t like anyone Jane had ever met before. He was open, optimistic and easy to talk to. Jane had never found it easy talking to men, but somehow…
“Me? I’m great thanks – mainly thanks to you and your beamline. How are you doing?”
“Oh I’m fine thanks, Gavin, just having breakfast.”
The man who Jane had named the coffee machine after looked down at the table and his smile said it all; he’d had his fair share of night-shift breakfasts in his time. Unconsciously, Jane studied his muscly arms, as he ran his hands through his tightly curled Afro. What was it about this man that had broken down her defences this easily?
“So I guess this is our last day here today?” Gavin sounded almost sad as he continued, “I really want to thank you Jane. You have been an absolute star this week. We really have achieved so much you know. Your work has just been unbelievable. I’m going to miss you and this place.”
Jane looked at the wall. She couldn’t look into his eyes. She was certainly going to miss him. No man had ever got under her skin like this. What Gavin said next almost sent her into shock.
“Look, I was wondering. I mean, maybe it would be nice… Would you like to go out for something to eat tonight? As a kind of wrap party, you know, to celebrate the completion of the project? We could certainly do with eating something a little healthier than we’ve been used to here. Some place in Oxford, Italian maybe? “
Before her brain had time to intervene, Jane’s mouth answered in the affirmative.
“Fantastic!” Gavin’s delight erupted from his face, “That’s a date then?”
Jane’s brain caught up and swiftly attempted to rebuild her encroached defences. Before she could stop herself she demanded, “What do you mean a date?”
There was something in Jane’s reply that troubled Gavin; it wasn’t the words, but the tone and depth of feeling. “I mean a date, er – I mean” he faulted, “if that is okay? Would that be alright, do you think?”
Jane’s heart stopped. Why was this man asking her on a date? What was he after? Jane just couldn’t see why he was doing it. There had to be something behind it, some deeper reason. Was he trying to use her position at the facility? Perhaps he planned to somehow jump the queue for a return visit. This man had taken her breath away from the very moment he had arrived and now this? What were his motives? So many questions jumped into her mind and a void opened up before her as she realised that there were no rules on the table to answer them. However, there was something on the table.
Jane stared at the cold remnants of her breakfast. A smile spread over her face as she looked up straight into the man’s deep, blue eyes.
“Yes,” she answered at last, “that would be absolutely lovely.”
About a mile away, as the Red Kite flies, a large bird smiled. It looked at the mouse in its talons and watched as the last breath of life drained from its chest. Carefully, the bird dipped the mouse into the rotting remains of a badger that had been run over three days earlier. Fresh mouse in rotting road kill for breakfast was the height of decadence to this bird of prey. The Kite momentarily pondered why this combination of flavours worked so well, and how he even discovered them in the first place, but then shrugged his shoulders. Some things in life didn’t need to be understood, he thought, they just needed to be enjoyed.