Angie looks at her phone but doesn’t answer. Her face grows greyer every time it rings. Brenda, her supervisor, wonders what’s going on and assumes it’s the usual student angst. Angie’s tense silence is punctuated only by the delicate susurration of tiny ripples creeping among rocks and stones. Moonlight glitters on water.
Brenda’s phone goes and Angie gasps. ‘If it’s him, don’t answer it. Please don’t answer it.’
‘Who?’ Brenda asks. She looks at the screen and reads out the caller’s name. ‘You mean “Dr Fartface Tosspot?”.’
Angie’s hand flies to her mouth, her eyes doing maximum wide. ‘Is that what you call him?’
‘Lord, Angie, keep up. That’s what the whole universe calls him.’ Brenda smears the latest squadron of attacking midges over her neck. ‘Fine, I won’t answer but do tell me what he’s done to freak you. Not that it’s difficult to guess. He tried it on me twenty years ago when he thought I was an impressionable undergrad and not a black belt that could stuff his nuts up his nostrils.’ She grins. ‘It really pissed him off when I was appointed to this team on a funder’s insistence.’
Angie doesn’t move. Her body and face expressed total shock five sentences ago and is keeping it up for emphasis.
Brenda sighs. ‘Go on, Angie. What’s he up to?’
Angie comes back to reality. Fingers clutched in hair she says, ‘He wants me to meet him in the Grouse and Claret.’ She looks down. ‘About half an hour ago.’
Brenda snorts. ‘Bloody hell. And you’ve only just joined us! I don’t mean to be rude but he must still be into young, timid and easily dominated. When he was after me he got a shock.’
‘He took me on only to…?’ Angie can’t finish the sentence.
‘No. I took you on. He only claims to be in command here. You are the most outstanding graduate of the last three years.’ She grins. ‘If he’d chosen it would be because you had big tits – or whatever his latest craze is.’
Angie relaxes a little, white knuckles unfolding and releasing her hair. ‘He said I had to go to Iceland with him.’
Brenda smirks. ‘For what purpose?’
‘To show me how the team worked.’
‘He has a flat in Reykjavik. What part of his anatomy did he describe as the team? No doubt he told you it was huge.’
‘I … I didn’t think… I mean I don’t want to go … I…’
Brenda slaps her neck again. ‘Blasted midges, I kill them but what’s the actual point? They lay their first batch of eggs just after they burst out of their own. They only bite us because they want to lay more of the little bastards.’ She snarls at the shadows extending from the hills and spreading over Loch Ness. ‘Did Dr Quentin Prickhead say what would happen in Reykjavik?’
Angie’s fingers go back into her hair. ‘No, but…’ She falls silent and looks down into the deepening gloom amongst the heather beneath her feet.
Brenda puts a hand on Angie’s head, ruffles the hair. ‘Hey you. He was quite sexy once – a geological era ago. You had to ignore his lack of brain. He looked good on TV; that’s how he finds his funding – he’d never get money from anyone serious. He’s a media star. OK and a fat, egotistical, brain-dead git who by pure luck has a team that gets him out of global humiliation nine times out of ten and from whom he steals the credit for the success we’ve burst our brains to… The tragedy is that he’s failed to notice his growing wobbly neck and beer belly. He still thinks he’s fit for the rowing team. Oh shit. Here he comes. Wanker alert.’
Through the twilight the twin beams of a Range Rover rise and fall along the loch side track.
‘Sod it,’ growls Brenda. ‘He may be after you but he’ll hide it all behind a smokescreen of wanting to know what’s going on. I suppose I should bring up some data for him.’ She punches buttons on a laptop. ‘I’ll see what I’ve saved in short words.’
Angie huddles down hugging herself in the heather. ‘I didn’t know science would be like this.’
‘Time to wake up, Angie. Welcome to egos and funding games. Get out now and study carpentry, assisting in shoe-shops or selling drugs on street corners: real, useful work.’ She looks at Angie and sees her own past. Her heart sinks through her feet and into the sodden mud and peat below. She wipes her midge-laden laptop lid. ‘Fine, you little bitches. Invade the keyboard. Get electrocuted … if only.’
The Range Rover lurches round the last bend.
Brenda says, ‘He’ll want me to explain the day’s data to him. I wish the team had a cartoonist who only used single syllables and speech bubbles. It would make our lives so much easier.’ She looks at Angie. ‘This git won’t hurt you, OK? This work needs you and not him. He doesn’t even know how to control the RCV, has no idea how the software works and … oh crap: here he comes.’
The car door slams and the crunch of booted feet approaches the side of the loch.
‘Evening, ladies, are you having problems with signals?’ The Professor looks at his phone. ‘I get two bars here.’
‘Buy us phones like yours and maybe we’ll be able to talk.’
‘I’ll buy you whatever you want when you get results.’ He scans the loch. He scans Angie’s body from top to toe and back again. ‘How’s it going?’
Brenda replies, ‘Well, Quentin. We’ve failed to find Nessie, giant otters, midget submarines, hoaxes or even mermaids just having fun. We’re still getting good feedback on the spectrum of matter density within fifty metres of what I’ve arbitrarily defined as the bottom.’ She pauses. ‘Interesting stuff today. Preglacial stuff, if I’m not mistaken. Where did these beaches come from? They’re two hundred metres down. If that’s not interesting – what is? I’ve passed the data to the British Geological Survey.’
‘Don’t go spreading our findings around for free,’ Quentin snaps.
‘Since when did the BGS have money to buy more than a paperclip?’
Quentin scans the loch, takes the laptop and turns to Angie. ‘How’s your first day, young lady?’ He puts a friendly hand on her arm and leaves it lingering there.
‘I’ll take you to the hotel in a minute and we can go over all you need to do to fit in here.’ He looks at the screen. ‘What’s this?’
‘That’s … stop touching buttons! Shit … the guidance software.’ Brenda snatches her laptop back. ‘What’ve you done? What did you press for God’s sake?’
‘No matter. I’m sure you can sort it.’ Quentin turns back to Angie, his waxed jacket rasping against heather on the bank. ‘Come on, young lady. Time you were inaugurated. Come with me.’ Angie squeals as his hands grasp her buttocks and propels her up the bank.
‘Wait!’ Cries Brenda. ‘This is serious. The RCV is dead in the water – a gross systems failure.’
‘Bring it in. We’ll take a look at it in the morning.’ Quentin huffs his way up the bank.
‘Virtually everything is dead. We could lose it.’
‘What?’ Quentin turns, mouth twisted in horror. Clutching at hawthorn branches for support and scrambling down he says, ‘What do you mean?’
Brenda looks over the water. ‘It’s about two hundred metres out, just under the surface. You can see the lights – that’s about all that’s working.’ She throws up a hand. ‘I can’t bring it in. It’ll sink soon. The emergency flotation system has failed.’
Quentin reaches Brenda’s side. ‘Set up a satellite uplink for all data.’
Brenda gasps, ‘That’ll cost a fortune!’ She hits buttons. ‘I don’t know the security code for that.’
Quentin snatches the laptop. ‘Look away. Only I am allowed access.’
Brenda turns her back, crosses her eyes and winks at Angie.
Quentin grunts and says, ‘That’s us connected.’ He thrusts the laptop back at Brenda. ‘Send the data to all our partners.’ His voice deepens as he pulls off his jacket. ‘Don’t look, ladies. I suppose I’ll have to swim out there and rescue it myself.’
‘Dear God,’ Brenda exclaims. ‘You can’t swim in that, it’s only about two degrees centigrade.’
‘You don’t win the boat race by being a wimp.’
‘That was a long time ago, Quentin.’ Brenda turns away as he continues to shed clothes. The two women stand side by side, a wall of backs turned to corpulent nudity.
‘Here goes!’ Calls Quentin and throws himself in the loch.
‘Nessie, take cover,’ Brenda whispers. ‘Angie, while I struggle with this, can you be a very brave girl and see if he’s taken his underpants off?’
Angie turns. ‘Uh… yes.’
Angie turns back and the two women squat beside the laptop. Brenda mutters, ‘Partners … what did he mean exactly? I think he meant academic partners but he could mean funders and the media too. I’ll send the data to everyone.’
Angie, picking up on Brenda’s odd tone asks, ‘What? What are you doing?’
‘Just doing what he told me to. Sending data.’
‘But why the smirk?’
‘The cameras are still on. All that anatomy he’s boasted about for years will be sadly affected by the cold water. Some of the funders are newspapers and media companies desperate for a story… Hmm, I think Quentin may consider a career change after this. All the partner universities are watching this live.’
‘But if he leaves the team…’
‘I’ll have to take over. It means a lot more hard work for you and absolutely no dirty weekends in Reykjavik.’ She glances at Angie. ‘You up for that?’
© Gary Bonn: 2012