“To Claude.” Victoria raises her glass.
“To Claude.” We echo.
Depending on how you measure, this is a poor or a brilliant turn out for the late Claude Harroche. Nine of us are gathered in the corner of the pub. Not a great number, but of those present eight are the pre-eminent quantum physicists on the planet. Eight pre-eminent physicists and me.
“We should reminisce.” Says Victoria, always the leader. “Leila, why don’t you begin? The story of how you met?”
“Me?” I don’t even know why I’m here, let alone leading reminiscences.
“Go on. It’s a great story.” Professor Henry Bar, with his fat friendly face, encourages me. I scan the rest of them. It’s like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, but without a handsome Kirk. No place for a single woman.
“Okay, hand me my wine.” Bar attempts to pass it to me, rocking his large body up from the bar stool, but can’t reach. Jianwei intervenes, passing me the glass.
“I was in London for a conference, about halfway through my Phd. Professor Bar, I heard you speak about quantum coherence. The weather was filthy. I couldn’t afford a cab, so I walked back towards the hotel. My route took me past the British Museum. I’d heard about Claude and a rumour that he had a cafe in a back street nearby.”
“Where?” Asks Francisca Okikiolu.
“Near the British Museum?”
“No. Where did you hear of Claude Harroche? And that he had a coffee shop. No one knew that, especially not an unknown Phd student.” “I don’t know? A message board? It was the nineties.” I take an instant dislike to Francisca Okikiolu.
“Leave her alone.” Says Victoria, this is a wake, not a viva. “Carry on Leila, your story.”
“Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a coffee shop. It was raining. I had a mile to walk and there was the slim probability that it might be Claude’s place.” I note the collected eyebrow twitch as I mention probability. “So I go in. There’s an old guy in front of a coffee machine that looks like a cross between a church organ and a steam engine. The place is empty. I have a sense that the man is Claude, but I bottle it and just ask for a coffee. As I do, I hear the door burst open.
‘Get on the floor. Now!’ Shouts a male voice. I look into the old guy’s eyes and he nods. I get on the floor. He walks around the counter, calm as a fish, and joins me. They zip tie our hands behind our backs. All I see of the intruders are silver booted feet.
‘Hi.’ Says the old guy in a whisper. ‘I’m Claude, sorry for the inconvenience.’
‘Leila.’ I say. ‘I’m studying for my Physics Phd.’
‘Leila.’ He says, but is interrupted.
‘Keep your mouths shut and your eyes on the ground.’ Says one of the silver booted intruders.
I listen to grunting and shuffling until the door shuts, and the intruders are gone. When we sit up, the coffee machine has disappeared.
‘What do we do now?’ I ask.
‘Wait.’ He replies. ‘Remind me of your name?’
‘Leila.’ I say.
‘Leila, Leila, Leila.’
‘Leila Fortune.’ I help him.
‘That’s it! Leila Fortune, Phd on Quantum Dis-entanglement?’
“Horseshit.” Says Francisca. “There’s no way Claude Harroche knew about you or your little Phd. He barely knew me until I published ‘Knowing the unknowable’ and that was a best seller.”
“Let her speak.” Says Victoria, but I realise I’m not intimidated by the vastness of the surrounding intellects. If Francisca doesn’t like what she’s heard so far, she’ll hate what comes next.
“The air fizzes and crackles with tension and the coffee shop fills with the smell of the sea. When the tension abates, the coffee machine has reappeared. My eyes almost pop out of my head, but I don’t have time to react because the shop door bursts open again.
‘Get on the floor. Now!’ Shouts the same male voice as before and I see the silver boots again. Claude looks me in the eye and winks. We prostrate ourselves. Then there’s another voice, this time female,
‘Werner, this is The Law. Put your weapon down and your hands up.’
A pair of green boots and knee pads come into view. Then more of the same. A minute later and it’s all over. All the boots, silver and green, have gone. The wearer of the last set of green boots to leave snips our zip ties. Claude gets up and taps his nose and says, ‘Never try to steal a time machine, it’s inventor will always have the upper hand.’
“Horseshit.” Mutters Francisca, ‘Horseshit, horseshit, horseshit.”
I ignore her. Victoria was right. It was a good place to start reminiscing. The rest of them spill their stories of Claude, none as dramatic as mine. I tire of their less than enigmatic delivery and go to the bar. Victoria joins me.
“You should come back.” She says.
“After all these years? I think I’ll leave it to the youngsters. Red wine please, Victoria?”
“Gin and tonic, slimline. Your work was beautiful, the theory and mathematical proofs were so elegant. I’ve still seen nothing like it.”
“I don’t think Francisca would agree. I’ve had years of being a wife and mother. My brain has gone to mush.”
“Do you miss Mike?” She asks, the sudden change of direction throws me.
“No.” I say more honestly than I intend. “After the initial shock of his disappearance, I think I was glad he’d gone. That’s awful isn’t it?”
“Not really, your kids are up. That first rush of romance was a million years ago. Tons of people divorce at that point. Those feelings aren’t any different to yours. What do you do now?”
“I’m a teaching assistant.” “What?” Says Victoria, almost spitting her gin onto the bar. “Oh, come on, you’ve got to put that brain of yours to work.”
“She’s right.” Says a third voice. It’s a guy, maybe ten years younger than me. Handsome, wearing a green tweed jacket with leather elbow pads. “You should make the most of your brain.”
Vicky gives me a cheeky smile and leaves me at the bar with the man.
“I’m sure you’re right, but this lot are quantum physicists. I’m not sure I can jump back into that with my old brain.”
“Pfft.” He says. “Old brains are the best, I once studied Buddhism and I assure you the sharpest minds with the deepest, penetrating, most mind blowing understanding of the universe are the old monks. You can be a neophyte, young and sharp as you like, but there is no substitute for wisdom and experience.”
“That’s very kind of you. Sorry I’m Leila, I don’t know your name?”
“Leila, Leila, Leila, remind me? What is it now?”
“That’s it Leila Anderson, married Mike. Bad egg. Gave up a most promising career in academia, had children, two?”
I am dumbstruck.
“The selfsame.” And he gives me his charming smile, one I’ve only seen on a much older man. “Don’t be surprised Leila, you shouldn’t be surprised. Look at them, the brightest minds. All of them know time doesn’t flow in a straight line, but none expect me here. Don’t know their Heisenberg from their elbow. Theorists the lot of them. You get it, you did from the start. Okikiolu’s ‘Knowing the Unknowable’ is a story book compared to your work.”
“Why are you here?” I say.
“Who wouldn’t want to see their own wake?” He looks over at the group. “Mistake. This is dreadful. I should have been a rockstar not a scientist. No Leila, I’m here because I thought you might be too. You were the brightest and the best, and you must start again. Whichever order I do it in, the days of my years are threescore years and ten. I need a successor.”
“You still have the coffee machine?”
He produces a gold pocket watch. “It’s a lot smaller now. Start again. We’ll have adventures. Think about it. I have to go before they recognise me and the party is spoiled.”
I return to the group and watch for a moment.
“He was from Czechoslovakia.” Says Bar.
“Not at all.” Says Victoria, “He was an Algerian.”
“Correct.” Says Jianwei. “Claude Harroche was an Algerian Sephardic Jew of Portuguese descent who migrated to Brno. It was at Brno he did his early work and became a respected Professor. In the 1940s, he fled from the Nazis. That’s how he ended up at Oxford.” Jianwei delivers his verdict with military certainty.
“Horseshit.” Says Francisca, “He’d have to be at least a hundred and ten.”
I wonder if they sense the tension and faint scent of ozone in the air.
“Hi.” I say.
The conversation ceases. Eight pairs of eyes focus on me.
“Leila Armstrong!” Exclaims Francisca Okikiolu. “Your work is incredible. Please, please, join us. Can I get you a drink?”
“We’re reminiscing.” Says Victoria. “Tell the story of when you first met Claude.”