Sunday, August 26, 2007

Meeting report

Hello all

Back from Belgium after one of the longest, beeriest, lack-of-sleepiest weeks of my life. For those of you unfamiliar with the low-lying country and its foibles, let me tell you that apart from eating tray-fulls of chips and mayonnaise, the other favourite past time of the Belgians is drinking beer of strength approaching or exceeding 8% (the strongest one I tasted whilst there was a whopping 11.3%, and boy was it good).

Ordinarily, you might expect such challenges to one's physiology would be sequestered outside normal working hours. But as I have already alluded, this was no ordinary conference. For a start, the beer was flowing for the whole week, as the organisers had set up a bar in the conference centre, and the barmen refused to take any money. One could down a glass of either dark or light beer (both 8%), from the first coffee-break at 10:30am, up until the end of the last session at 6:30pm.

Had this arrangement been made in Engand, I'm sure I would not have been alone in taking more than my fair share of the malted yeast solutions on offer. Perhaps I was glad to be temporarily free of the stresses of recent months, de-mob happy as I returnd to the scientific community I consider my home. Certainly I was happy to make several acquaintances, old and new, whilst I supped at the Belgian bar, and at no point did anyone suggest I should actually put down my beer glass and listen to some science.

Were my drinking restricted to conference hours, then I am sure I would not have had to take the hair of the dog most mornings with a blood mary from the contents of the mini-bar at the hotel. This was so effective that I managed to maintain a low-level of hangover then entire trip (except on the last day, when I didn't actually go to bed, and left the hotel still feeling innebriated). The reason for this, and other, late nights was the preposterous amount of hospitality laid on by the conference organisers. Normally, the kind of conference I attend is strapped for cash when it comes to sponsorship, but here there was no shortage of corporate money, and the drug companies supplying the veterinary industry were more than happy to show their generosity when it came to food and drink.

Dolores was less than enthused when I delivered my report on the week. 'I thought you said you were going to do some networking, start a collaboration, bring in some money!', she shouted when I reached the details of the final night's hospitality (a mediaeval spectacular in a 13th century castle complete with fire-eating jesters and roast wild boar).

'Well, I did network, actually...', I countered, 'I just can't quite remember what I networked about. But I'm sure, love, that it will all come back to me. I just need a couple of days to recover.'

'You what? I've been stuck here all week looking after the twins and the baby, and you say you need some time off?'

'That's not exactly what I said, I just...'. My attempts at correcting Dolores's interpretation of my needs fell on stony ears. She turned and strode off towards the kitchen. I was momentarily tempted to follow, but then my phone started ringing. I pulled it from my jeans pocket and looked at the number. It was from a Belgian mobile, but there was no name attached. 'Hello?', I said tentatively.

'Is that Joseph?', said a female voice with a flemish accent.


'Is it alright for us to talk now?'

'Er, yes. Sorry, but can I just ask who is calling?'

'You don't remember me Joseph?' said the lady, chuckling as she spoke.

'Er, no, it's not that. I just don't recognise your voice on the phone.' At this point I glanced over to the kitchen window. Dolores was doing something at the sink. Coincidentally, I presume, she looked out of the window at the same time, and must have caught the look of slight concern on my face as she frowned.

What would you have done in this situation? I had nothing to fear or to feel guilty about, yet I turned away as if to seek privacy, and then walked to an area out of sight of the kitchen. The lady on the other end of the phone was asking me whether I was still there. 'Sorry, you're going to have to tell me your name I'm afraid', I said once I was out of sight of my wife.

'OK Joseph. It's me, Clara. I did not think I would sound so different on the phone. Do you like my phone voice. My accent is not too strong for you is it?'

'I, er, no, sure. How are you?'

'I'm good Joseph. How is England?'

'Yes, the weather is getting better, thanks.'

'OK, good. You said I should call when you get back, so I called.'

'Yes, good. Well, it was nice to hear from you.'

'OK, so I guess now is not a good time to talk. Is your wife there?'

'No, I mean, er, yes. I'd better go. Bye.'

I have no idea who Clara is, or why she rang. Honest. I only mention the conversation here to prove that I am completely above board and not hiding anything. I hope.


Sunday, August 19, 2007

Conference season

Hello all

Despite being penniless, I'm still proud to be a scientist. To that end, I am about to fulfill a long-term invitation to a conference in the mayonnaise-loving country of Belgium. The olde-worlde town of Ghent is playing host to about a thousand vets from around the globe with an interest in parasitology. My marketing manager - the erudite scientist known as Dr Mark Booth, will be accompanying me, as he is speaking to the assembled vets on his favourite topic on Monday. I will be in the audience, of course, silently praying that he doesn't make a mess of things. Usually he is OK, but he does have a habit of sprouting off into some tangential subject and running over time. Many a chair has had to remind Dr Booth that there are 'only two minutes left' on the clock.

Fortunately, my expenses are being met by Dr Booth, who had set money aside to attend but then found out he was an invited speaker. He very kindly offered to pay my registration, travel and accommodation. It's the first time I have been to a conference in over a year, so I intend to really enjoy the affair. There is something comforting about sitting in a darkened seminar for an entire day, with nothing to do except listen to a string of ten-minute talks puntuated by questions and refreshment breaks. One can leave the troubles of the world behind and allow oneself to wallow in pure academia.

Dolores was initially sceptical about the trip, and accused me of abandoning the ship. I managed to placate her with a promise that I would exploit the occasion for networking purposes, and reminded her that conferences are an ideal place to set up collaborations (which often lead to grant applications). Mollified, she smiled and told me to have a 'good time', before heading off to her new job at the manor house.

Yes, that's right. My wife has found employment as a domestic help in the services of our neighbour, a foreign business man specialising in some form of 'import-export' as his secretary told us last week. He uses the manor as his weekend retreat, and likes to have it thoroughly cleaned before his arrival every Friday evening and after his departure on Sunday evening. As the manor house has 8 bedrooms , 6 bathrooms, 3 receptions, an orangery and a gallery full of - what was termed 'foreign erotica', it is clear that there is a lot of cleaning to be done. For that reason, Dolores has been contracted to work for two days a week - Monday and Friday. At her interview, my wife had asked how the position had become vacant. The secretary was reluctant to say at first, but eventually relented and told us that the prevous cleaner had been caught using an item from the gallery during her lunch break 'for personal pleasure'.

Knowing my wife's somewhat puritanical attitude towards erotica in general , I have full confidence in her ability to focus on the dusting.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Cap in hand

Life continues at a very slow pace. There has been no news from the police investigating the destruction of the Institute. One of my contacts in the village near where we used to live told me on the phone that the rumour machine is fully functional. Someone apparently told the vicar that they had overheard me telling the butcher that I was fed-up of living in the area and was looking for an excuse to leave. The conversation with the vicar was overheard by the cleaner, who told her husband, who told the butcher that I was planning to burn down the Institute and claim on the insurance. The butcher told the police that there was a rumour going round that Curly was an innocent victim and that I had gone mad.

The police recently rang to ask me to tell them of my travel plans. I suggested that they concentrate on finding Curly before he does something similar, and informed the sergeant that I could not formulate any travel plans without having access to money. At this point the policeman asked if I had been able to obtain any work. I told him that there were very few vacancies for PhD-trained scientists specialising in parasitic infections, within the hamlet or neighbouring area, and hung up.

'We really do need an income, Joseph', said Dolores one night over our dinner of poached (ie, snared) rabbit and (stolen) carrots. 'Look at us. We can't even provide toothpaste for the kids. I mean, how much longer are they going to have to chew on sticks to keep their teeth clean?'

She was right, as usual. Chewing on sticks is a tried-and-tested method of tooth cleaning, but sooner or later we would need to provide more elaborate goods, like toilet roll. You see, I had spent all our current-account money on replacing essential items (microscope, books) lost in the fire, but had forgotten about the consumables. When Dolores had opened the first package from Amazon she had assumed that the book had been ordered before the fire, and that I had simply informed the company of our new address. After the seventh book (an excellent tome by the famous parasitologist Claude Coombes) arrived, she began to suspect I was making fresh purchases. I admit that I might have been a little hasty in trying to reconstruct the library (I lost about 30% of my books - mainly those kept in the lab), but it was an attempt at resolving my transition from somebody to, well, nobody.

'How much have you actually spent?', she asked, having already established that I had made upwards of twenty purchases.

'I'm not entirely sure, love, but I suppose it must be, er, somewhere in the region of just under six hundred or so....'


'Parasitology books are not mass-produced. They have a limited...'

'Our money is limited, you idiot. What were you thinking?'

'The insurance would...'


'Well, love, that's not strictly true. We are insured - I'm just not sure how much. And I thought if I could - now just hear me out here - I thought we could get going again and do some consultancy work for the - please just listen - do some work for the local vet. I've got his number and I thought if I got a microscope I could....'


And so it went on. To cut a long story short, I had inadvertedly spent all our current-account. We have some savings, but they are all investment based, and have never recovered from the crash of several years ago. Fortunately I hadn't thought of raiding them before being caught by Dolores. Same difference, really, as we are still penniless, and looking seriously towards taking on some menial work until such time as either the vet returns my call, Uncle Jake wires some money, or the insurance company become the good guys.


Thursday, August 09, 2007

Making ends meet

The twins are dancing around the yard, making whooping noises as they throw small stones at the corpse of a rabbit they retrieved from the nearby meadow. This show of boodlust is most likely connected with their statement that they were going to become 'hunter-gatherers' for the summer. I laughed when they told me, my rational head pointing out the flaws in their plan within seconds.

Perhaps my derision merely spurred them on. So far, they have reaped a virtual harvest of fish, fowl, small mammal and the odd vegetable - pilfered from someone's garden. I should protest, of course, but since moving here we have been living on very limited means, and any contribution to the larder is, frankly speaking, more than welcome.

Dolores, for her part, has stoically offered to take work up at the manor house as a part-time cleaner. If Uncle Jake's money doesn't come through soon, we both might have to take advantage of the local job market. There isn't much available around here, bar some casual work on one of the farms.

I suppose I should back-peddle a bit at this point and bring you up-to-date.

We are living in a hamlet somewhere in deeepest Suffolk. The actual building is a barn that was partly converted some years ago before the cash ran dry. It belongs to a friend of Uncle Jake, and we have permission to live here until such time as we get our act together. This may take quite a long time for various reasons. First, I made the classic error of not insuring the contents of the Institute to their full value, and we are therefore very unlikely to receive full compensation. Second, Uncle Jake is having 'cash flow niggles' as a result of some dodgy accounting by his dodgy accountant. Finally, without my laboratory I am... like a polar bear without an ice floe, a mosquito without a bloodmeal, a tree without any roots - starved of purpose and unable to sustain either myself or my family.

The result of this emasculation is plain to see, and the temptation to squander my unbridled optimism and mope around in a self indulgent moray of low-level depression is growing each day. Dolores, my beautiful, strong, wife, is coping better than myself. She carries on almost as if we were still in the Institute, and has taken steps to ensure that our three children are put under as little stress as possible. Truth be told, the twins are loving the change of scenery, and No. 3 doesn't seem to have noticed anything.

Ravel is making himself useful as an odd-job man. He rises each morning at 6am and brings us tea like he used to back at the Institute, undertakes his regular exercise routine, and continues with his home improvements. The place was unfurnished when we arrived, but now looks almost inhabitable, even though most of the furniture is made from MDF (it's all we can afford). Dolores has stitched together some cushion covers from a few off-cuts she scrounged from a woman in the hamlet, and the twins stuffed them with straw. If there is one thing we are not short of, it is straw - until recently the barn was still being used as a storage facility for the dried cereal stalk.

At least the sun has come out. I took a walk today to study the manor house, which sits on a nearby hill. One of the locals told us that the hamlet used to belong to the estate, and that the current incumbent of the manor - a foreign business man, is planning to buy all the property up and turn the place into a village theme park for his children and their friends. From the dozen or so houses, three had already fallen into his hands, I was told, and the barn is, apparently, on his hit list. A visit to the manor house is due, I think.