The Pursuit of Knowledge …
On Wednesday morning I caught the eight thirty three from Brighton to Chichester to begin my little adventure. The day before I had a brief conversation on the subject with Carole who looked at me doubtfully while biting her lower lip: “You did go through it thoroughly with them, didn’t you?”
“Of course,” I lied.
During the brisk fifteen minute walk from the station inside the city walls and close to the Cathedral I saw many beautiful period houses that had been reclaimed from commerce. The character of the city had changed and a domestic hum was replacing the hush of office life and I enjoyed the early spring sunshine on my face as its rays slanted down over the rooftops and between the pilasters to reflect on the windows of parked cars. No wonder North Street received acclaim from Nikolaus Pevsner and Ian Nairn in the Sussex volume of The Buildings of England as ‘the perfect street for an English country town’. And somewhere inside this portentous Georgian façade would be the former school converted by Solaryde into their research facility.
Once buzzed in through one of the glass security pods I stepped into the reception hall with its high corniced ceiling and which still retained the elegant Adam oval staircase. It wasn’t hard to visualise what this place must have looked like when it had been a school with pupils heading in noisy crocodiles up and down those stairs: all excited chatter; sports bags and gossip. Stepping from behind the dais a girl in a white silk blouse and whose long black ponytail dangled down to the small of her back led me across the lobby toward a series of rooms converted into cellular offices. There seemed to be nobody else around and the building was eerily quiet apart from the whine of computer or other electrical equipment; the noises of the street shut off by the vacuum-sealed doors.
“You’re just in time; Doctor Barzani is expecting you. She’s just about to start the briefing” was her perfunctory greeting and as we walked along the corridor a surveillance camera high up near the veiling panned to follow our progress.
“Here you are.”
The girl ushered me into a barrel-vaulted room converted into an office. Five faces turned to look at me – these belonging to the other volunteers sitting in a semi-circle around a functional metal workstation desk. And there seated at some distance to the side of the desk was the elusive Doctor Barzani herself.
“Ah David! Welcome. Please take a seat. I’m just taking the group through the preliminaries and explaining the background to what are our phase II clinical trials …” The smile switched direction to the girl who had shown me in. “Thank you, Rachael. We’ll be done in about ninety minutes so you can buzz them out then, okay?”
I was barely conscious of the others in the room as I took the vacant chair – so preoccupied was I in drinking in the beauty of the woman opposite. My God was she gorgeous! Jet-black hair, swept up into a simple and completely practical hairstyle, accentuated her high-cheek-bones and a straight, perfectly proportioned nose. Wide-set brown eyes with delicately painted lashes complimented a mouth in which the upper lip curled a little and the lower lip was a little fuller than the upper. She is beautiful, I thought. If you drew a line down the centre, both sides of her face would be almost exactly the same. Her cafe au lait skin was flawlessly smooth. And I’m pleased to say she even wore a white lab coat over her tight black minidress and those long shapely legs were hosed in black nylons that found their perfect accompaniment in spiky-heeled shoes. A name badge pinned to her lapel read SAHIRA BARZANI BSc. Expressions like ‘stunner’, ‘honey’ et cetera would seem ridiculously inappropriate when applied to such an amazing woman …
“You’ll be helping us here today with our work in developing and evaluating novel treatments through the first in the series of single and multi-centre trials …” There were half-a-dozen of us in Doctor Barzani’s office. We were all around the same age – early- to mid-twenties, students from various academic establishments. And her group now being complete, she launched into an exposition of the programme but it proved to be as opaque as Carole’s earlier explanation. To make matters worse (or better, depending upon your perspective) she had this habit of reclining right back in her swivel chair, legs crossed and one glossy high-heeled shoe dangling in a seductive manner from her foot so the ball in the fine-denier hose shone almost pinkly through the charcoal mesh … Stop perving at her legs! I told myself sternly, you’re here for the advancement of science – not to letch at good-looking women. I tried to distract myself by taking the occasional glance beyond the French windows at the stone flags that let out into the garden. But it proved difficult …
After the rather sinister hush of the remainder of the building it felt a relief to be back amongst people. Of the other five volunteers, one in particular caught my eye – tall and leggy girl with a sun-reddened face and a disarranged hairstyle of blonde locks and dark roots that I found quite appealing. She spoke in an Australian accent and asked the most questions of any of us but I was too lost daydreaming about the beauty of Doctor Barzani to hear barely a word of either these queries or the concomitant answers.
“ … Designed to optimise alternative mindpaths through appropriate stimuli to re-engineer neuro-linguistic programming into generating more societally acceptable responses …” To be honest I was so fixated on Doctor Barzani’s lovely face and that ruby lipped mouth I was away with the fairies. I took not one whit of notice of what she was actually saying … until ‒
“– We have laid on some light refreshments for you so please enjoy these, get to know each other and then in half-an-hour we’ll start.” Naturally there was some form-filling and the doctor passed a clipboard amongst us that had attached the thick legal waiver to be signed and of course a slip for the nominated bank account for each person to receive their expenses and remuneration. We then filed out into a common area where tea and coffee urns stood on a trestle table alongside a respectable selection of biscuits, muffins and other pastries. I’d no sooner poured myself a cup of coffee (which proved to be surprisingly decent for this sort of thing) than I received dig in the ribs from somebody and I looked up to see an immensely tall and gangling youth who peered down at me through thick-lensed spectacles. “Hello mate,” he said in a suitably posh voice. “I saw you eyeing up the good doc. Quite a looker isn’t she?”
“She’s that all right,” I cackled, taking a liking to this eccentric character. “So what do you make of all this business? It’s a bit mysterious. I mean nobody’s told us what’s in store.”
“The chance to make a few quid – easy money that’s all.” Flicking back a lock of straight-combed blond hair he suddenly stuck his hand out. “Graham,” he said.
I shook it and replied, “David.”
The third boy in our group had by now drifted over to introduce himself: “Mazher.”
We exchanged handshakes and introductions complete began speculating on the nature of the experiment we would soon be participating in. “I’m not sure I want to be a lab rat,” Mazher confessed; face pensive. “But I need to get my car back on the road.”
“I’m sure it’ll be all right,” I replied although by now I did have a few butterflies in the stomach. Despite the tall arched windows in the room it seemed perceptibly darker outside and the third youth’s words brought back the feeling of unease I experienced earlier. Keeping a discreet distance the three girls also had their heads together discussing the situation. Only Graham seemed unaffected by the mood of apprehension. “Tell you what I’m going to do,” he winked conspiratorially, “once this is over I’m going to invite Doctor Barzani out for a coffee.”
“I mean they keep mentioning Newman,” Mazher persisted. “What’s all that about? Who is Newman and what are his theories? How come nobody’s given us a straight answer since we got here? Don’t you think we should be finding out more about this stuff? Because that’s probably what they’re going to be doing to us? I mean don’t you think we should know!”
“No idea,” Graham chortled, “all I care about is they’re paying us and I want to get my leg over with the doc and that’s all I need to know!”
“And you reckon a coffee’ll do it, do you?” I guffawed. “I admire your confidence.”
“If she’ll have a coffee with me it’s a start, isn’t it?”
Mazher laughed and shook his head. “You guys are hopeless, aren’t you?”
“Okay ladies and gentlemen. We’re ready for you now.”
……………………to be continued