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Authors: Janette Turner Hospital

Charades

Charades

Janette Turner Hospital grew up in Queensland and was educated there. Since her post-graduate degrees in Canada, she has taught in universities in Canada, Australia, England, France and the United States. She has won a number of prizes for her eight novels and four short-story collections, which have been published in numerous languages. In 2003, she won the Queensland Premier's Literary Award and the Patrick White Award, and received a Doctor of Letters
honoris causa
from the University of Queensland. She is Carolina Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of South Carolina, where she taught for twelve years. In 2010, she was a visiting professor at Columbia University in New York and is currently Adjunct Professor at the University of Queensland.

Also by Janette Turner Hospital

The Ivory Swing

The Tiger in the Tiger Pit

Borderline

Dislocations

Isobars

The Last Magician

Collected Stories

Oyster

North of Nowhere, South of Loss

Due Preparations for the Plague

Orpheus Lost

Forecast: Turbulence

The Claimant

For my mother and father

who taught me that love is rich and redemptive

whatever costumes and guises it wears

May the legends of the men of old be lessons to the people of our time, so that a man may see those things which befell others beside himself: then he will honour and consider carefully the words and adventures of past peoples, and will reprove himself.

The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night

To modify the past is not to modify a single fact; it is to annul the consequences of that fact, which tend to be infinite. In other words, it involves the creation of two universal histories.

Jorge Luis Borges:
The Other Death

I tend to examine here the memories of extreme experiences, of injuries suffered or inflicted …

Once again it must be observed, mournfully, that the injury cannot be healed: it extends through time …

Primo Levi:
The Drowned and the Saved

For my part, I have no illusions; what took place can happen again. We are only entitled to a respite, a reprieve between two …

Testimony of André in Claudine Vegh:
I Didn't Say Goodbye: Interviews with Children of the Holocaust

PART I

Charade

If we ask, for instance, whether the position of the electron remains the same, we must say “no”; if we ask whether the electron's position changes with time, we must say “no”; if we ask whether the electron is at rest, we must say “no”; if we ask whether it is in motion, we must say “no”.

J. Robert Oppenheimer

1

Charade

The grand unified theories,
Koenig writes,
are difficult to verify experimentally. Nevertheless, they illuminate our understanding of elementary-particle interactions so elegantly that many physicists find them extremely attractive.

“What an extraordinary sentence,” she says.

He is deeply startled and spins full circle, almost pitching his desk chair off its base and virtually colliding with her. “Good God!” he says. “How —?”

“So
elegantly.”
The girl brings her hands together in an odd gesture of wonder. A mass of hair, which is fair and unruly though tamed into a single thick braid, falls over one shoulder. Her eyes are a curious colour, a kind of borderline blue, intense; or perhaps (it is the middle of the night, and the desk lamp casts odd shadows) a sort of sea-green.

“So
elegantly”
she repeats, opening her hands, looking at them as if the words, mysterious and glittering, were cradled there. Her smile is speculative, dry, possibly mocking. “Elegance as scientific methodology?”

He blinks. From the corner of his eye, he notes with dismay a ketchup stain on his corduroy pants; also a protruding loop of undershirt. He is embarrassed. He clears his throat. “You shouldn't …” (What is the matter with his voice?) He coughs into his fist, frowns, clears his throat again. “You absolutely shouldn't be here.”

And her eyes, contemplating both his trailing undershirt and the words in her palms, flash blue-green with surprise. “I shouldn't? Why? Where am I?”

“Building 6,” he says inanely — though it is not his office, which is upstairs. This is the office of a younger colleague, an experimentalist, as must surely be obvious from the congestion of equipment. “The main computer,” he adds. “My — ah — a colleague of mine …”

The girl's skin seems unnaturally translucent. Of course, the weird light from the monitors is responsible.

“A colleague?” she asks.

“An
experimentalist
.” It is discreetly done, this indication of a drop in the social scale. “His — ah — this is his office.”

Behind her head a loop of polyester tubing snakes across the basement ceiling and throbs like a vein. The colon of MIT surrounds them. Heating ducts and eccentric plumbing and pipelines for argon gas tie themselves in intestinal knots.

“I'm looking for someone,” she says.

Ah, he thinks. It is rumoured that his colleague sometimes engages in non-academic activities late at night in this very room.

“Actually,” the girl says, “to be more accurate, I'm looking for several people.”

Her accent puzzles him. “Where do you …? From where …?” “Harvard Square. I came by subway.”

“No, I mean —”

“Are you Professor Koenig?”

“Yes, but —”

“They said you worked late. I'm Charade Ryan.” She extends her right hand, quaintly formal, and he shakes it. Shock. Currents pass back and forth. He thinks of quarks and uneven fractional charges. “And the connecting link is Katherine Sussex,” she says, quite cool and businesslike. “You remember Katherine?”

He stares at her blankly, the name meaning nothing at all.

“I see,” she says. It seems a great deal has been revealed by this response. He has a sense of her jotting down data in a logbook somewhere. “Perhaps,” she says carefully, “if I mention your former wife Rachel and the trial in Toronto?”

He is stunned. For a moment his vision blurs, his ears sing, he thinks he might faint, or be sick, or do something equally disgraceful. The room spins, the Toronto court is packed with the argon canisters, the computer monitors, the MIT bulletin board, the basement ducts, pipe elbows, plumbers' clasps, valves, silver insulation packing. Nothing can be counted on to stay in its proper place. He opens his eyes very wide, testing, and presses his fingers against the sockets. Warily, he focuses on his arms and legs in case they go into spasmodic behaviour, in case his hands make a telephone call, in case his legs take him out to Logan airport for another Boston–Toronto flight. He sinks back into the swivel chair and closes his eyes and forces himself to take deep and regular breaths. Inhale, count of ten, exhale.

When he shakes himself clear of shock and looks again, the girl has vanished.

Of course, he is certain he has invented her. Or that he has fallen asleep at the desk and Rachel, his ex-wife, has spooked another dream. Well, not Rachel really. His own guilt, he supposes, which comes in a thousand and one different guises and plays many games.

In the large tiered lecture hall of Building 6, Koenig draws blackboard graphs of both the standard and the inflationary models of the origins of the universe. His field of scholarly inquiry is the first second after time began; specifically, that space between 10
-
30
and 10
-
35
of a second after the Big Bang itself, a crack large enough to swallow a life.

He is discussing energy densities and the “flatness problem” arising from the standard model, “first pointed out,” he says, glancing back over his shoulder at the class, “in 1979 by Dicke and Peebles at Princeton”. Two hundred students dutifully scribble this into notebooks. “And further elaborated,” he says, but something in peripheral vision troubles him and he falters, turns back to the blackboard and continues with his three-dimensional representation of two Higgs fields, falters again, the chalk poised like a wary sentry. “And further elaborated …” He casts about in his mind, bewildered, not yet quite alarmed, and mercifully words swim up to the rescue. “Further elaborated on page twenty-three of the offprint I handed out last week.” The unease passes. He labels the false vacuum, the energy barrier, the true vacuum. The students make faithful transcriptions. In the shallow concavity of the false vacuum he draws a ball and fills it in, scribbling, chalk dust powdering his fingers and thumb.

“This represents the universe,” he says. He draws an arrow. “This is how the ball, the universe, would roll if the Higgs fields were pushed from their initial value of zero by thermal or quantum … or quantum …”

Something is unsettling him, he feels slightly asthmatic
and dizzy.

“Thermal or quantum fluctuations,” he says decisively, wrenching his concentration back on track. He draws another arrow.

The chalk breaks.

“Ah …” He turns to the tiered seats and holds on to the podium. “I believe I may have to …” The room is fogging before his eyes. “You can pick up copies of my article at the departmental office. I'm afraid that I …”

He sees her then, third highest tier, near the middle. He could swear she has never been in his class before.

“I think,” he says, a clammy hand to his forehead, “that I am not … I'll let you go early. Read the article for —”

A din of shoes, of books and bookbags being scraped up, swamps his voice. White noise prevails. He leans back against the blackboard, lightheaded, and watches them file past. His colleague, the experimentalist, nods on the way out. (His colleague? What is his colleague doing sitting in on the introductory course?) Then the girl, who might have set her compass by Koenig, comes straight down the centre aisle looking a bit like one of those long-legged birds — herons is it? — graceful but with a hint of precariousness as she negotiates the steep tiers. He could almost say she staggers slightly, except that her body movements are far too delicate.

For a moment she pauses on the other side of the desk and looks at him across the lab sink and the high chrome curve of the tap. There is nothing hostile or impertinent about her look, but she does not smile.

“Are you …?” He fidgets with papers on the desk. “Are you registered or auditing? I don't seem to remember … ah, here it is.” He has the computer printout and looks up. “What was your name again?”

“Charade Ryan.”

“Shuh …? Shuhrahd Ryan?” He frowns. “I can't seem to … how do you spell it?”

What is particularly unsettling is the quality of … of what? of
knowingness
in her smile.

“Ryan with an R,” she says, the ironic tone so exquisitely muted as to seem like a compliment. Or an invitation?

“And Charade with a C-h. As in
Paris talks are a bloody charade, Prime Minister says.
My mother thought it was a French word.”

“I see.”

Prime Minister?

He runs his eye down the printout. “I still can't seem to —”

“I'm not an undergraduate,” she says.

At the door, his colleague calls sharply, “Charade.”

She nods and leaves.

She forgets to pick up her folder of lecture notes. Koenig hesitates, thinks of calling after her down the corridor, picks the folder up warily, shoves it into his briefcase. No doubt she will return for it. It is a standard red folder with the MIT crest on
its cover. Also on the cover are her name, her dorm room, a phone number.

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