Chapter 1, Oxford 2014
Her hands shake as she applies the last layer of lipstick in the fading mirror of the faculty toilets. The lights flicker in beat with her racing pulse. This is it, she reassures herself, the culmination of six years of research; her dream, the chance to be somebody, to be accepted – perhaps even loved. She thinks of her Dad and has to tip back her head to stop the tears smearing mascara down her sweat-pricked cheeks. Her Dad – above everything else, this is for him. She straightens her hair as best she can and physically shakes out her thoughts. The window is shut but there’s a cool breeze leaking through the decaying wooden window frames. It intensifies her shivering so that she jumps a little as the door begins to knock. “It’s time” comes the disjointed voice from the other side of the door. She steps out into her future, for you Dad ringing in her ears, an honest blessing before the world changes forever.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for joining us today.” The Dean takes a sip of water and stares down at his short speech. He can feel the tension emanating from Amy and her team. He knows this is a big deal for her, as it is for the whole University but this isn’t about her or the University, today is his day and her anxiety is clouding his mood. He knows Amy will deliver the preliminary findings well but will she do it without blowing the whole goddam thing apart in her vanity? He taps his jacket and feels the reassuring coolness of the flask. Not just yet he chastises himself, there will be time for that once the performance is over. Only he understands the full weight of what they have discovered, the commercial potential if only he can wrestle it out of the hands of those who can only scratch the surface with their moralistic imaginations. But he must tread carefully to get the upper hand and that includes making sure the whole team, including the headstrong Amy falls inline long enough for him to complete his business. He has seen it so many times. A generation of head-strong, get rich-quick researchers cutting their teeth at the expense of the University only to jump ship the moment a commercial backer comes flashing the cash. So much for academic integrity. To hell with it, this time he would be the one given the opportunities, shown the door to riches and reputation. He screws up his fist at the thought of it, his knuckles whitening as he tries to control himself. The money was his, it was all within his grasp as long as Amy didn’t fuck this up. He needs a drink. The small research team, headed up by Dr. Amy Childs had been preparing for this press conference for weeks. Although they were only sharing preliminary findings, at least until human trials could be approved, there was enough to excite the media and the University’s PR machine, as such it was, had prepared statements very carefully to protect the team’s reputation. The Dean couldn’t have planned today better himself. Enough information to excite without giving too much away before he had everything in place for his own spin-out. He already had several influential supporters so timing was everything. Amy could spoil it all if she let her nerves and excitement get the better of her. He looks over and sees her buried in her notes; she could be a beautiful woman, he considers. However, as usual, her hair is untidy and she has a coffee stain on her sleeve, she is nervous. He sighs, it is too late now. He continues.
“The University of Oxford has a long vibrant history of academic excellence and has been at the forefront of scientific discovery for over 200 years. As I address you today, research emanating from this very building is helping to shape the way we live, work and document the world for future generations. From understanding the very nature of our solar system and the creation of life on Earth itself; to monitoring and protecting precious resources for our grandchildren to enjoy; scientific research is at the heart of everything we do in the modern world. There is no greater display of how science has been used to improve our quality of life than the medical advances we have made in the last century in the treatment and care of vulnerable people across the world. Ever more sophisticated treatments and prevention methods are providing many thousands of people with terminal illnesses a more hopeful outcome and potential for life. Most recently sharing information with research and medical facilities around the world has helped to prevent and control the spread of deadly diseases such as Ebola and HIV. We are at a time of medical marvels, and this is not a romantic idealisation - the 21st Century will be remembered, I’m sure, as our greatest steps towards positively preventing and managing terminal illness and disease. On that note and with no further ado, I am delighted to introduce you to Dr. Amy Childs, one of our youngest and brightest research professors here at the University of Oxford. Dr. Childs has been with the University for six years and has a doctorate in homeostasis and its function and potential opportunity for the treatment of terminally ill patients. Dr Childs.”
There is a smattering of applause from the audience as the Dean turns and gestures for Amy to move, like a small child being summoned to take account of herself. The room is filled with under-achieving trade journalists; there are no nationals to sniff around for a larger story. It is exactly as planned. Enough interest to show potential investors, not enough to challenge the University’s intentions.
Amy stands and walks awkwardly towards the lectern. Her first words revolve in her mind. A mixture of excitement and nerves has provided a cocktail of adrenalin and cortisol to rival any amphetamine-induced high. With little sleep and plenty of coffee, she takes to the stand. She has been briefed well. As long as she sticks to her notes, everything will be OK. Despite herself, she so desperately wants to please the Dean. Even if this means selling her ideals short, turning her brilliant work into a sound-bite, a commodity to be bought and sold by the University to the highest bidder. Despite all of this she can’t find it in herself to let the Dean down and so she will be the good girl and today will go as planned.
Michael Lafferty languishes at the back of the room. He has been to so many of these ‘exciting’ media briefings and knows the drill too well. Hot stuffy room, equally stuffy faculty staff, an hour of scientific back-slapping and bow-tie twiddling celebration of research that has no interest or application beyond the sterile world of some privately educated, socially awkward misfit. Lafferty has a pounding headache from cheap whiskey and an early start, is dressed in far too many layers for the artificially heated cupboard the press briefing is being held in and no hope of escape until the speeches are done. He doesn’t even pretend to take out his notebook. Over the last year as a cub reporter on Science Today Lafferty has seen his hopes of a proper story, with grit and interest, disappear into a micro chasm of artificially intelligent shrimp, aggressive mice and exploding neutrons. He looks around the room and sees the usual pale and lifeless faces. Here to witness the climax of yet another ‘ground-breaking’ scientific discovery of million pound proportions. The Dean goes quiet and Lafferty is jolted back into the room. He has barely been listening, instead watching his coffee congeal in the standard issue plastic catering cups. As Amy walks across the room, however, Lafferty flickers with recognition. She is taller for sure, more awkward if possible than he last saw her but the piercing brown eyes and determined jaw are the same as when they were teenagers, when he would challenge her crazy notions of the world. It was Amy Childs; Michael Lafferty takes out his pen.
“Thank you, Dean,” Amy begins “I am here today to share with you the excellent work of my research team into the application of stem-cell therapy in the prevention and treatment of diseased tissue.”
Amy almost chokes on the words as she struggles to keep her nerves under control.
“As you will all be aware, work on the potential application of stem-cell therapy is not new and is already being applied in the isolation and treatment of various hereditary diseases with great success. However, the role of stem-cell proteins in homeostasis, that is to say the maintenance of the natural state of health within the human body and its ability to fight and overcome disease, has not until now been explored and readily understood.”
The Dean relaxes a little. Amy is on script so far.
“There have been many excellent examples of research from around the world looking at the effects of treating diseased tissue with healthy blood samples using a technique called heterochronic parabiosus, that is transplanting the circulation of a healthy specimen onto that of an unhealthy animal to improve repair and recovery.”
The room is stifling hot and she is desperate to escape. Her team look on sympathetically; the Dean’s smile appears seared onto his face.
“Until now it has not been widely understood how and why this treatment works and how the results, small as they are at the moment, might be applied in a medical setting to artificially create a state of homeostastis within ill patients. It was understood by the few outcomes recorded that something in this technique was positively affecting the number of blood vessels and stem-cells in the treated area, which seemed to lead to increased ability to repair injured or diseased tissue.”
There is a cough from the back of the room. The audience is beginning to overheat and the sound of crinkling plastic cups reverberates off the walls.
“Over the past six years my team has worked tirelessly to identify what makes these positive outcomes possible within mice in the hope that this might then be applied to human trials. At first it was assumed that the introduction of healthy blood in some way impacted on the blood pressure of the specimen animal, thus creating a healthier environment for recovery, but our findings seemed to suggest something much bigger than this at play.”
The Dean puffs himself up ready for the finale. This is the bit he has been waiting for. The tip of the iceberg but breath-taking nevertheless.
“We now believe that we have identified a protein in the blood plasma of healthy mice called Growth Differentiation Factor 11, or GDF-11, that appears when transfused into diseased specimens to improve the natural levels of GDF-11 of the host animal. We believe this protein is responsible for repair and growth and therefore its renewal enables some recovery within the compromised tissue. As both mice and humans register a natural fall in GDF-11 as tissue deteriorates we believe these findings indicate it might be possible to replicate our success in treating diseased tissue within mice in human trials, particularly for the treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer’s where improved cognition is probable.” Amy takes another deep breath and scans the room. All eyes are on her and one set seem so familiar they almost knock her off the stage. It couldn’t be. She can sense the Dean’s impatience and struggles on. Had she really imagined his face at the back of the room? She continues:
“In fact our work with test mice has shown that a transfusion of GDF-11 from a young healthy mouse can improve cognition and the health of several organs in older mice including the brain. This seems to suggest that the ongoing treatment of disease is as much about maintaining the naturally occurring protein levels of homeostasis as it is tackling the pathogen itself. It is prevention as much as cure and we are encouraged by these findings and their potential application as a medical intervention in the future treatment of terminally ill patients. Thank you.”
Amy expels her last breath a little loudly and it puffs into the microphone. Only Lafferty picks up the sign of relief as Amy takes her seat behind the desk and the Dean takes centre stage again for questions. It has been a successful briefing. Amy knows it does not even scratch the surface of the potential of the research including the potential use of GDF-11 as a way of repairing and slowing down the effects of aging itself. If her findings are correct and with more work and support from the University, the team could find a solution to the pain and suffering of old age and its uncertainty and fear. The painful side-effects of aging could become as manageable as a common cold. She thinks of her Dad once more and the disease that is slowly taking his dignity as well as life; she is filled with excited hope.
The room erupts with a wave of interesting and intelligent questions. Amy’s speech has been received well and the Dean smiles like a warm, proud father. This has been a triumph for him, he thinks, and now it is time to claim the glory. As agreed, the Dean is to take all questions; the team sit and brood in the corner like star players stuck on the bench for bad behaviour. Most of the young graduate team are here out of protest, preferring to be in the comfort of the lab than surrounded by cameras. For them this is a media circus and Amy can’t help feeling like the freak show. There are a few leading questions about the scope of the research, the source of the blood plasma and its potential for human trials but the Dean is prepared and bats them back like a professional tennis player with well-rehearsed proactive statements. A few journalists want to question Amy and the team directly but the Dean deals with these too with slippery ease. He holds court and his influence and presence is palpable. Only one young journalist dares to challenge the Dean with a constant probing for Amy to respond but whilst she flushes under the scrutiny she keeps her answers curt and tight. The Dean is pleased with her, perhaps he has underestimated her strength? That could be dangerous he notes. If she were to leave his plans would be jeopardized. She is too stupid to understand the power she has, something he intends to keep from her; or take if necessary.
Michael wants to speak to Amy. He wants her to acknowledge him. He sees past the trumped up Dean and his slick sound bites. He wants Amy to tell him, tell him why she didn’t return his phone calls all those years ago, why she had shut him out when her mother died and most importantly right now what was making her nose itch? When he had known her this tell was a sure sign she was hiding something? If he is right there is something Amy Childs is not telling this room and that’s what he is really interested in. You didn’t need a science degree to understand her research had some ethical problems. Where one human life is to be used as a commodity for the preservation of another there are always morale implications. However is this not already common practice in blood and organ donation? Is Amy’s project then not just a natural extension of a well-established and effective medical practice? The rest of his colleagues certainly don’t share his unease and wave their hands about with passive and uninteresting questions. But then on the face of it is there anything actually to get overly excited about? That the research had positive potential there is no doubt - but Lafferty sniffs something more dangerous in the air. His interest is piqued and he knows how to get a rise from Amy Childs.
Amy knows his voice immediately. So she hadn’t imagined those familiar eyes boring into her soul, spotlights from a more painful time. But what the hell is he doing here? Of all the times to run into Michael bloody Lafferty why did it have to be on one of the most important days of her career? She wonders if she could just slip out of the room; the Dean is holding off the questions well and she is tired and has a headache. If she could just slip out she wouldn’t have to look at his smug face on what is supposed to be her day, her payback for years of solitude and sacrifice. It has already been tempered by an overly cautious PR team. She won’t let it be spoilt further by him. She vowed she would never speak to Michael Lafferty again after he betrayed her so deeply at such a vulnerable time in her life. Her mother was dead and the man, no boy, she thought she loved and loved her equally had rejected her and shattered the last remains of her confidence and joy. As she plans her escape she hears her name in a too familiar voice. He’s trying to engage her as he twists and writhes out of the Dean’s slippery grasp. “Dr Childs, can I ask YOU again where you think the plasma for this GDF-11 will come from, even if you do manage to get approval for successful human trials? Without willing donors aren’t you in danger of providing false hope to those who need it the most or are you suggesting we manufacture GDF-11, have you tried? This seems a little like science fiction at this stage doesn’t it?” It’s a dirty trick. As teenagers Amy and Michael had been keen adversaries in the debate over whether the many, many scientific discoveries that Amy was always so excited about had any solid applications in the real world. Michael used to call it hot air, guff, a waste of tax-payers’ money. Amy had defended it all to the hilt. Until her mother had become sick and the medical profession, her beloved science, the institutions she admired so much could do nothing to help. She watched her mother fade to nothing in a smokescreen of medical hot air and guff and now she wonders if her Dad will be dealt the same fate. That’s why she’s been determined to make her research matter, to make it count for people like her and her Dad, who have lost loved ones and aren’t looking for hypothesis and speculation but real options and positive outcomes. She bites back her temptation to shove the results down his throat, to demonstrate how far she has come despite his cruel rejection. She can feel her face burning under the pressure but she sticks to the script and delivers a cold and curt reply. “As the Dean has said, and I reiterate, the full weight of these findings have yet to be measured and tested and therefore we do not know how it is to be applied for medical use. No human trials have yet taken place and we must be cautious about how much we promise, for as you have said broken promises are not a positive outcome for already vulnerable people. Therefore we are in no position to comment on the level of detail you are proposing.”
She hopes the reference would sting. Michael Lafferty will not get the better of her today or ever again. “But today’s announcement,” the Dean continues, “could signal a new option in the treatment and care of seriously and terminally ill people and we hope to begin human trials as soon as it is feasible. That, Mr Lafferty, is a positive outcome, not science fiction.” The cameras flash and the Dean takes his place beside the team. Once the human trials begin the full potential of this research will be realised and his name will go down in history. Questions of donors and application are a distant dream. He knows that the NHS already struggles to get the blood needed to treat patients traditionally, without adding a potential new use for blood but he knows the application of GDF-11 goes beyond what the NHS can offer and this could be the answer to source. Money is power. Besides, despite failed attempts at manufacturing a stable GDF-11 protein, who knows perhaps one day it will be possible. He beams into the room of flashing lights; the PR team flit between the rows ensuring everyone has copies of the preliminary findings.
At the back Lafferty sits in contemplation. He knows he has got to her but she is no longer an awkward geeky teenager and he realises he needs to speak to her alone if he wants to find out what, if anything, is not being said. He doesn’t know why he feels so strongly that something is being hidden but it excites him. This is why he became a journalist. To follow his gut feelings, to uncover the story, to find danger and lies in the words of the respectable; it was a romantic ideal and until now an overindulgent fantasy but can he feel it now? Is it because Amy Childs is involved, his muse for so long? Or does he really feel the sense of something being hidden? If he has read Amy’s body language correctly there is something they were all missing and he will get to the bottom of it. He leaves the shoebox room with big ideas.
La Terre is busy tonight, its gilt-edged décor belying its second-rate clientele. The journalists pour out of the conference and fight their way through the tarnished atmosphere. Lafferty is not one to disappoint the cliché. He joins in with the good humour and banter but Amy has taken root in his consciousness, he can feel an old familiar warmth budding inside him, one he thought well buried. Amy Childs, Dr. Amy Childs. He has every reason to admire her; she had wanted to be a scientist for as long as he could remember, it was her big dream and despite the sacrifices that had been required of her she had followed her path with heart and determination. She is now Dr. Amy Childs, a doctor at Oxford no less and yet he saw no fire in her eyes standing behind that podium delivering her overly-prepared speech. None of the passion he knows she is capable of. If this is her big moment why deliver it as if she were reading the morning’s weather report? And the nervous twitch, imperceptible to everyone except one who had spent night after night rehearsing and revising with her until she had her work word perfect. He knows Amy; at least he had known Amy. Has she changed so much? Could he really be basing his gut feelings for a story on the memory of a look, a gesture from over 10 years ago? He chuckles to himself. Despite all of the women in his life since, there is and would only ever be, one Amy Childs. Michael orders another whiskey and stares into the bottom of the glass, twirling the harvest-coloured liquid around and around, his thoughts following the viscosity of the cheap drink. He isn’t wrong, he has to be right, Amy Childs is hiding something. He knows enough to see that there is risk in what has been announced. His questions, whilst in some way a challenge for Amy to engage with him, had rung true; where would the blood come from? And even if they get enough where would it stop? He knows from organ donation that more people die waiting in hope for an organ than can ever be satisfied by the system leading to a black market that is beyond the scope of human morality. He was no scientist himself, but surely the amount of blood needed to isolate the plasma required to treat half of the patients treated for cancer each year alone would double the current blood donation quota and the NHS struggles to engage donors now! It is beyond his comprehension that a way could be found ethically and legally, unless manufactured, of getting enough blood to truly provide anything other than another waiting list of hope. The drug industry, whilst corrupt for sure, can at least provide treatment without the reliance of human kindness and selflessness. Money makes the world go round indeed. The drink mixes with his thoughts and becomes a hypnotic mantra; Amy Childs, Amy, Amy, Amy….
Amy and her team physically burst through the doors of La Terre.
The press conference has gone well, the Dean is pleased and there is rumour of more money and responsibility. The Dean has been very clear that the team are to keep out of trouble tonight but the mood is set. Years of work and long nights have been endured, surely they are entitled to let their hair down a little?
Amy had been slow to persuade at first. The run-in with Michael had left her emotionally vulnerable. He had this way of getting to her that only her mother had been able to do. It was like he could see into her soul and she felt exposed in his presence, even after 10 years. His voice, which had once been a salve, had hit her in that room like a blast of ice. She had wanted to go home and bury herself in her books. A clear vodka, a warm bath and her knowledge, her only true friend. She needed to feed Zeus, her precocious feline companion and of course she needed to update her Dad. She wouldn’t tell Dad about Michael Lafferty, he would know how much his presence would have disturbed her and it was important to her that her Dad thought all had gone well.
And all had gone well, Michael Lafferty was just a distraction. And she needs another distraction, she can feel the itchy creep of anxiety and knows that if she doesn’t move, doesn’t get out of her head the darkness will claim her and she will be left in that bath alone and crying for a life half lived. So it is the pull of the bar, some form of friendship, a shared sense of achievement that finally rings out and Zeus is left to complain at his lot in bursts of outraged cries.
Lafferty can’t believe his luck. It is as though she has heard his call, the ritualistic pull of a thread set down in childhood. He can’t move; part fear, part elation. He isn’t sure she will even speak to him but he has had enough to drink to chance his arm; for now she is surrounded by other off-duty lab rats so he orders another drink and bides his time. This is surely a sign that he has been right all along. He doesn’t believe in coincidence. It is serendipity that has delivered Amy Childs to him this evening, has given him the chance to prove that he could be the great investigative journalist he has set out to be. He has been searching for a big story for some time but nothing has stuck, mainly because anything too big has been grabbed by older, more senior members of the team and anything he has been assigned held no interest outside the specialist pages of the only magazine he has managed to secure a position with. He dreams of the nationals but for every application he sends off, thousands of others did the same; thousands more qualified and better connected. He needs to make a name for himself with an expose. All of this adds to the sense of excitement at seeing Amy again and Michael does well to keep from rocketing off his seat and taking her in his arms. But he learnt long ago to put those dreams aside, when she froze him out of her life the first time. He wouldn’t play the fool again. This was strictly business.
Amy doesn’t see Lafferty at first, she is too busy enjoying playing the minor celebrity role, alcohol drowning any remaining nerves. She had never been popular at school, no real friends to speak of, except…no, no real friends to speak of. So the attention from her team and journalists alike makes her giddy, not a little helped by the cool, chilled wine that fails to empty no matter how quickly she gulps it down.
Everyone is keen to talk about the research in a bid to flatter and flirt with the attractive doctor but despite her growing confidence the Dean’s words of non-disclosure are not easy to drown out and she reveals nothing more than had been sanctioned and agreed. Once the audience sees they are to get no more information or opportunity from Dr. Childs, they grow bored and Amy is able to side-step the conversation and make her way to the bar. She still has an overly full glass of white wine but wine has never really been her drink. It makes for messy mornings. She desperately wants a glass of water chased down by cool, crisp vodka. The bar is busy but a woman like Amy, despite the creased shirts and tussled hair, doesn’t have to wait long before she draws attention from the barman. She has captured someone else’s attention too.
Lafferty downs his drink, takes a deep breath and makes his move. “Amy, I mean Dr. Childs, of course,” Michael tries his best charm offensive but Amy doesn’t even flinch at her name, she just stares ahead, an extension of the wooden bar stool she’s propped up against. Michael wavers, perhaps she doesn’t recognise him? Surely she can’t still be mad at him. Whatever happened before, they are adults now, still he changes tack, perhaps he needs to be less familiar - after all it has been ten years.
“Sorry - perhaps you don’t remember me, I was at the press conference, it’s Michael, Michael Lafferty, we used to..”
Amy turns to face him and interrupts his chain of thought. She has a darkness in her eyes he has never seen before. Like two pools of hell fire. “I am very aware of who you are, Mr Lafferty,” she spits. Then she turns on her heel and without waiting for her drink to be served storms out of the bar.
Damn it, Amy thinks, he really is planning on ruining everything today. Who invited him anyway? What is he doing here? She wishes she had vetted the press list more closely but to be honest that has never really interested her. She is happy knowing there are people interested in her research, of course, but their names were irrelevant until now. She doesn’t know where she is going, she still needs that drink but his voice, his face - it’s all too much. How she has kept herself from throwing something in his face she puts down to nervous rage, and now she is semi-drunk out on the street without her coat and muttering to herself like the women you see on a Saturday night as the clubs kick out. She is furious and feels very foolish for leaving her coat and purse back in the bar. She can’t go back, but where was she going now? Home, she supposes, but it is getting dark and threatening to rain and her door keys are in her coat pocket. Oxford looms on either side, an historical stage-set of cobblestones and ancient brick to the unfolding farce. She does her best to hold back the tears; if she could see herself she probably would have laughed at her stupidity. It is in this pitiful state of half sorrow and shame that she feels strong arms spin her around and faces Michael Lafferty dead in the face.
“You forgot your coat and purse,” is all Lafferty can think of saying. After she had stormed out he felt for sure the story was blown but then he spotted her coat and had an idea. So he has followed her out and with a little speed has been able to catch up with her. Where he goes from here is not in the plan.
“Look Amy, it’s been a long time. Can we at least talk?
You owe me that surely?”
“I owe you, I owe you!” Amy all but laughs in his face. “I owe you nothing Michael Lafferty, now if you don’t mind I am going home, please do not follow me.” At that point the rain keeps its promise and falls heavily; Amy feels her anger break with it.
“Please, Amy, it’s chucking it down, can we go inside somewhere and just talk? I get that you’re still angry with me but I don’t understand why. You don’t think you owe me anything - that’s fine but at least tell me why you hate me so much, why you shut me out, why you are still shutting me out?” His pain is sincere. Thoughts of a story or scoop are being washed away in the downpour – it was just Amy and Michael, as it always has been and Lafferty is transported back through time.
Amy is soaked, cold and miserable. She doesn’t want to speak to Michael Lafferty any longer but she also feels her rage and rejection solidifying and this might be the only chance to give it a stage, a chance to be heard and acknowledged. “OK, ten minutes, in here.” She drags him through the door of another bar; this one is dark and quiet with aging carpets and furniture that feels misplaced and pickled. She gestures to a corner table and throws herself down. Lafferty heads to the bar. Whisky, he needs a whisky. “Vodka,” barks Amy without being asked.
With drinks in hand Lafferty makes his way stickily back to the low corner table where Amy is brooding. “So, this is nice.”
“Enough small talk. What do you want, Michael?” Straight to the point, she hasn’t changed that much then!
“Like I said, I just want to know what’s going on. I mean I see you today for the first time since school and you not only blank me but physically cut me off. I understand the last time we spoke things were tough for you and you needed some time but Jesus Amy, it’s been 10 years. I just wanted to say hi as we were both in the same bar. I mean we were friends once, weren’t we, or have I just imagined all of that?”
“Friends!” Amy shouts across the bar before trying to get her indignation back under control and at a respectable audible level. “Friends!” she now semi-whispers as patrons return to their stale lives. “You wouldn’t know the meaning of the word. Yes it’s been a long time and if luck had been on my side it would have been a lot longer still. But it seems today of all days I am destined to have all of this raked up again. So what do you want hmmm, to apologise, be best buddies again is that it, well too late, as you say it was 10 years ago and that’s where your apology belongs. Not here, not now. You have two minutes left.”
“Me apologise? For what? What is it that I did that made you push me away all those years ago? Seriously you need to tell me because I am obviously being thick.”
His indignation is also palpable.
“As far as I am concerned I was the only person to stick by you whilst your mum was dying, listened and supported you as you tried desperately to help her, stuck up for you at school when you couldn’t keep your anger and frustration under control. I was there for you, Amy and then your Mum died and suddenly I was out in the cold, no longer needed. Seriously what was it?”
“Yes, you were very supportive. Whispering behind my back, running back and forth spreading rumours; you didn’t support me - I was the butt of your social life. You just kept me on to make sure you had the inside scoop for your next performance. You got close to me and used me to further your own popularity and then dumped me when you had taken everything you needed. I thought I had lost everything when I lost Mum but you took everything, my very last scrap of dignity.” Amy has kept this to herself for such a long time it doesn’t feel real, doesn’t feel like her life any more. She realises she has held onto the hate and pain for far too long.
“That’s a very pretty story you have told yourself but there’s one thing missing, the truth. I never betrayed you; I never used you to be popular. I was unpopular because I knew you. But I chose to be friends with you anyway. Whatever you think you saw or heard didn’t happen Amy. It was all in your head. Your Mum died and you couldn’t handle it so you shut up shop. That’s the truth of it.” Lafferty sounds more sure than he is. Discussing this all now with Amy doesn’t feel real. Is he sure of his motives after such a long time? He isn’t sure of anything, but he knows it is time to let go of the confusion.
“So you’re a journalist now. Yes that fits. A professional story teller. You never were good with the truth, were you Michael?” Amy hits back. It is a bit of a low blow, but she is playing for the wounded child still aching inside her.
“Truth! You mean like that oh so very well prepared speech this afternoon? Really, Amy, do you and that puffed up Dean think you can hide the truth for long? If my esteemed colleagues haven’t got it yet they will do eventually, it’s only a matter of time. What you’re offering here is not hope - it’s the reduction of human life to a commodity, a resource. Something to be exploited and used up, as we use everything else up on this goddam planet. You think you’re so perfect and yet you’re staking your career, your success on the exploitation of others.”
Amy feels his words slap her cold in the face. “That’s not true.” A whisper at first, with less power than she wants but all that she can manage. “That’s not true.”
“Really, then tell me Amy, tell me how you intend on applying your research, providing hope to sick and dying people without harvesting the blood, the life force of healthy, young people?”
There is nothing Amy can say. It is true that the research, for all its promise, has some supply issues for now but he is missing the fundamental point, he has missed its full potential, its ability not to just help sick people but to potentially stop people becoming sick in the first place. That is surely worth exploring, people would understand and it would be their lives and the lives of their families they would be safeguarding with the donation of what is, you could argue, an infinite resource if taken slowly and safely. Giving blood is not a new concept, and she is sure people will understand the increased need to protect their future and the future of their loved ones, loved ones like her Dad for instance. She would be happy to donate as much blood as needed if she could relieve her Dad’s slow demise at the hands of Parkinson’s disease. Why wouldn’t others? Her research has the potential to do this! But he has not missed the point, has he; the University have chosen not to announce the amazing resource the human body naturally held. They have manipulated how her research will be received. She feels very alone and sad. How she wishes she could unburden herself. To prove to him her worth, her capabilities. But - the Dean. She bit her lip in silence.
Lafferty takes her silence for admission and this, mixed with the whisky spurs him on. He laughs in her face. “Get over yourself, Dr. Childs. You’re not the important person you think you are. You’re still the frustrated and angry little girl with no friends living in the dream world of your bloody science books.”
“Time’s up.” Amy feels broken. The argument spans a decade and she can’t be sure of which side she stands on any longer. He sounds so convinced of his innocence but she had been there, she had seen how the others had laughed about things they couldn’t have known about, things she had told only him. She can neither accept nor reject his story; in the same way now she isn’t able to defend her work nor support his accusations. Confused, she gets ready to leave. This has been the mistake she thought it would be. Her anger has left her and has been replaced by dissolution and pain. The itchy feeling crawls up and down her arms like tiny insects. She is prepared for a full blown anxiety attack. She has to get out of there fast before she says something she regrets. But Michael is barring her way, he isn’t letting her go. He searches her face; he is looking for something, but what? Why can’t he leave her alone? He could never leave her alone!
Despite his vindictive speech Lafferty is hurting too. He had wanted to hurt Amy but now he wants to desperately take it all back. He can’t let her walk out of his life again. He has to find a glimmer of hope, of something that tells him they can come back from this. He searches her rain-smeared face. Her eyes flash and he sees her pain and loneliness. Now is his one and only chance. He pulls her towards him and although she struggles the pressure and warmth holds her and she stops fighting and they are body to body; familiar and safe.
Amy collapses into his embrace. She is too tired to fight. He smells of a time gone by and his arms feel like home. She stops struggling and lets herself be held.
The vodka and company cushion Amy in the corner of the dank pub. That embrace has set something back; its familiarity tinged with frustration, anger, fear and finally pain and surrender. It is as if she has passed through something, something timeless and at the core of her being and now she lays exposed but happy for the first time in a long while.
Lafferty lets her go but he has felt the change in her body, felt how it yielded to his touch and finally relaxed in his desperate grasp. He is sure she won’t run this time although no words have been spoken by either of them. They don’t need words; it was all said there in the way their bodies clung to each other. An undoing of mistrust, half-remembered lies and the rebuilding of something better, something they both had forgotten they needed.
“Another drink?” He had been so angry and now he feels spent. Who was he angry with? Amy for shutting him out and then blaming him? Himself? Was it true, had he in some way betrayed her and had been blind to this hurt for so long? Or was it deeper than that - it feels deeper than that - as if his whole life depends on Amy Childs and he has to make her listen. And he had made her listen. Now it is her turn.
Amy knows she will tell him right there and then. It is as if he had found her reset button and she is no longer Dr Amy Childs, Oxford’s finest, professional and discreet to the core. She is Amy; the Amy who was the first to put her hand up in class, who agonised over answers until she was sure it was right, who held the pain and suffering of her Mum in her heart and the memory of her impotency in her drive to succeed. And she had succeeded. Michael would understand. If she just explains the potential he will see why they have to go ahead despite any uncertainty. So she knows she will tell him even before he lets her go.
They sink back into the chairs, cocooned in friendship and Amy begins her story, the story, the only story that matters.