Still Life A Case of Doubt
IT was 7.30 on a Friday morning, and Alice cast a baleful eye down a corridor strewn with Coke tins, cigarette ends and empty crisp packets. It had been the same all last term. Crisps and ash crushed underfoot made dark score lines in the parquet flooring which took ages to remove. It was bad enough that the Physiology Department paid their student guinea pigs the same for lying down and doing nothing as she was getting for doing real work. What made her angry was that no allowance was made for the mess caused by the young people as they queued in hordes during the lunch hour for their 'screening interviews'. She was expected to clear all this up and still get to the Physics labs by 8.00. She once asked what the interviews were for and for two pins would have volunteered herself but all she learned was that it was all hush hush, and only the lucky few that got selected ever found out the Big Secret. Well they could keep it. She wasn't going into anything blindfolded.

Things could be worse, though, she thought philosophically. At least here the academics talked to her. Professor Bert something-or-other (she wasn't much good with names) often began work early in his cosy room overlooking the university park, and could be counted on to brighten her day with a kind word or a joke. Alice noticed the light under his door and felt glad.

'Good morning, Alice. Looking forward to the weekend?' Peter Burtofski leaned back in his swivel chair and smiled. Every Friday he asked the same question, but always managed to make it sound as if he was really interested to know.

'Oh yes. My daughter and her husband are coming on Saturday, with little Hilda.'

'She's just started school, hasn't she?'

Alice nodded her reply, pleased that the Professor had remembered.

'Our youngest granddaughter can't wait to get to school in the morning. I bet your little one's the same, isn't she, Alice?'

'Yes, she's enjoying her school very much. She's always full of tales when she comes home.'

Alice was going to continue, but stopped herself. Their short conversation was over. The Professor smiled again briefly and turned back to his word processor.

It was a glorious late-October morning as Alice walked home through the park. The sun cast patterns of gold-leaf on the grass and the trees, a rich colour that reminded Alice of her childhood. A warm, scented breeze caressed her face and neck, melting ice packs of memory and flooding her mind with images that made her swoon. In her imagination it seemed as if the birds were singing in tune. Stopping to listen, she fancied that she could hear the song, 'Oranges and Lemons'. Two squirrels darted about playfully, throwing acorns at one another. Alice watched, captivated.

On the VDU screen, little green letters danced, then formed into neat rows. Peter gazed at the press release he'd been composing with a sense of deep satisfaction. The results of his experiments had been collated and checked, and were already on their way to the British Journal of Neurophysiology. For many years he had been considered pre-eminent in his field. Now, he had created a new and vital field of research all of his own, whose ramifications were endless and far outstripped the narrow academic world to which his recognition had hitherto been confined. Tomorrow, when the news broke, his name would be known world-wide. For a few moments, he daydreamed about the series he planned to do for the BBC.

'Here mum, look at this. Quickly!'

Alice was just putting the brussel sprouts on the stove when Susan called from the living room. Summoned by her daughter's urgent tone, she rushed in, still holding the saucepan. Susan gestured to the TV. On the screen were the familiar grey buildings of the university where Alice worked. Then the scene changed to what looked like a dentist's surgery, where a young man reclined in the chair, eyes closed, a forest of wires attached to his head.

'...According to the Head of Department, Professor Burtofski, the subjects reported vivid dreams which corresponded almost exactly to the detailed information fed through the electrodes directly into their brains,' the science reporter was saying.

On Alice's face was the look of someone who had just put two and two together to make four.

'What is an electrode? What does she mean?', asked Susan, addressing her question to the TV set.

'It means no more cinema or TV or videos!', her husband Mike babbled excitedly. 'You can just go down to the corner shop and rent your own dream!'

Alice imagined herself in a villa in the South of France awaiting her morning massage, the cook busy in the kitchen, the maid scrubbing the ceramic tile floors. Then she glanced at Hilda playing with her dolls, oblivious to everything that was going on.

'I'm quite happy living a real life, thank you very much!'

The following Monday, when Alice returned from work, her next door neighbour was waiting at her front gate, looking very agitated. 'What would you say if I told you that you'd won a million pounds?', she blurted out.

'I'd say, don't be daft!'

'It's true! A man and woman from Littlewoods came round. The wouldn't say exactly how much you'd won but it's a very large First Dividend, a seven-figure sum. If you don't believe me, call this number.'

Alice remembered that in the excitement over the News item, no-one had bothered to check the pools coupon.

Two hours later, Alice was standing at the entrance to her living room. Her legs felt weak as she leaned against the door frame, not daring to take a single step forward into the room. On the sofa opposite, a smartly dressed young woman was explaining, '...We can arrange an appointment with our financial advisor to discuss how to invest the money, or you can see your own bank manager if you like...' Next to her, a man who looked like an insurance salesman with a dark grey suit and black briefcase smiled broadly, saying nothing but nodding at intervals. Alice thought how she'd scrimped and saved over the years just to have a little money put by for when she retired. Now more than she'd ever dreamed of was being handed to her on a plate. Looking at her visitor's animated, empty faces, she felt a momentary surge of anger. Then she thought of her villa.

It was only after the couple had gone that Alice began to have doubts. Not that she was especially prone to doubt: it was just that things like that never happened to her. Two modest wins at bingo were the sum total of her success in competitions. She remembered someone telling her that one was far more likely to get murdered then have a major pools win. But surely all this couldn't be a hoax? Why should anyone go to so much trouble? No, that seemed even more unlikely. Then, as she gazed at the empty sofa a vision came to her of a middle-aged woman dressed in a light blue smock, reclining in a dentist's chair, eyes closed, wires attached to her scalp. Suddenly, she felt sick with panic.

The Professor was naturally delighted to hear from his secretary about Alice's pools win, but wondered why Alice had not come to see him herself. It wasn't like her. Then a strange idea occurred to him: suppose Alice had for some unaccountable reason become convinced from the news reports that she was being experimented on against her will. How could he ever persuade her that that was not the case?

'No, she's too simple to have doubts like that,' he thought.

In a laboratory on a planet many hundreds of light years from Earth is a glass jar with a living brain in it. Attached to the brain are thousands of tiny tubes and wires. The alien scientists who work there refer to the brain in words which approximately translate as, 'Human Specimen Number 47933'. The brain refers to itself as Peter Burtofski.

'Still Life' © Ruth Klempner 1999

'A Case of Doubt' © Geoffrey Klempner 1995