Perihelion - October 2002
Departure - Alia Sheikh
(page 5/16)


Departure

I'm not sure why I'm writing this. Maybe I'll send it when I'm done, I don't know, but I can't sleep and if I don't do something I think I'll go crazy...

I'm sitting on the top bunk with REM's New Adventures playing in my laptop's CD drive, headphones in my ears - I don't want to disturb the other people in the carriage. The trains here rattle so much, it's not that loud but every so often the train jumps and my screen flickers. I've got maybe an hour's worth of battery left - I left the last socket behind me in Karachi, I could write this out I guess, but my hands are shaking enough as it is, anyway I haven't got any paper. I don't have anything with me really - no don't think about that - I quite like it here, just the sound of the tracks, soft darkness for a view, occasional lights.

Why can't I sleep?

I guess I should write about Alan, what happened, why.

The little boy on the bunk opposite me is waking up. No, he's just moving in his sleep, I wonder what he's dreaming of. I'm avoiding the subject aren't I?

Here goes - and Suzy, if I do send you this, don't judge me. I didn't want any of this to happen. It wasn't like I knew from the start, although now I think about it, it should have been perfectly obvious.

Even the first time we saw him - you remember, that day at the train station, it'd been raining all morning and the train was held up. He stood out even then, everyone was stressing, you were worried about being late, didn't want to make a bad impression. And he was leaning against the wall, hands stuck in his pockets, watching the rest of us with those calm blue eyes of his.

I remember when the train finally arrived and then he got off at the same stop as us. You thought he was following us - were sure of it when he walked into the institute behind us. The three of us walked into the lecture late - had to sit at the back to avoid attention. It was a presentation on certain enzyme inhibitors, based heavily on the work of a Dr Coleman, you spent the whole hour quietly picking holes in his theories and at the end of it Alan turned to us and introduced himself. I'll never forget your face when he said his name was Alan Coleman, and would we like to continue trashing his life's work over coffee or something? I was faintly surprised that he ended up becoming our guide that weekend, he'd had a large part in organising the conference it turned out.

But why am I writing this? You already know this part, and what happened afterwards - its only last week I really need to tell you about. One thing still surprises me; I understood his interest in you - you're a biochemist, and a good one at that, your criticisms were valid - he learned from you. But I didn't like him - and that's odd, because you two are so similar, and you're my best friend.

The train is stopping...

I got them to fill my thermos with tea - I'll regret emptying the water out tomorrow, but I need caffeine. Ten rupees - about 11 pence at the current exchange rate - bargain. People are leaving the train now the bunk below me is empty, the old man with the green suitcase just left. Must be his stop. The inside of my elbow itches. Someone just stuck their head past the door and asked me if I wanted to buy boiled eggs, the porter's just ordered him off the train. Honestly, its the middle of the night - this would never happen on British Rail.

Where was I? Alan.

Alan. He never did explain how he got your company to let you part-time as his assistant. I used to wake up in the middle of the night and find you two in the living room discussing molecular mimicry or something equally esoteric, I don't think either of you ever looked up. I know I resented him poaching my friend - it felt like the three of us shared that flat sometimes.

This tea is milky, very sweet... They always seem to make it that way here, another thing I'd forgotten.

I don't think I'd have forgiven Alan if he hadn't turned out to be a Blues fan. I'd had a bad day at work and I had the CD player on really loud when he arrived with a stack of printouts for you - I don't remember where you'd gone, but we just started talking. I guess I'm trying to explain...

oh not now....the battery's going.....

OK, last week. Well, you were there for most of the important bits. I got home to find you both drunk and obscenely happy. Experiments over, molecular-switch thingy works, publication here we come. I wasn't really listening, was more concerned on nabbing some of the alcohol before you finished it all...

I keep having to stop typing to scratch my arm - there's soft red marks there now...

I just wanted you to know that I never lied to you. I don't think I ever told you the whole truth, but what I did say, I always meant.

By the time you get this, you'll have a pretty good idea what I mean. I do actually work at the lab, but I also... freelance. This particular job I didn't want to accept, but that doesn't mean much as you'll notice I took it anyway. But I thought you deserved to know the truth. You see, you won't be able to publish anything - the vials of polypeptide you both spent so long generating will have mysteriously denatured by now. Not so mysterious really when you consider that I microwaved them. All except for a small sample, I've complexed it with a binder and injected into my skin - its a simple technique, but one you won't have heard about, for obvious reasons. I don't even want to think about how they'll get it out again, that part isn't pleasant - I've only had it done once before. You can try and repeat the tests, who knows, if you work quickly enough... I think I owe you that chance at least. But I warn you, my client isn't going to waste any time - it's a highly marketable project you were working on, I almost wish it hadn't been.

You won't see me again. I'm... sorry.

M.

Alia Sheikh