“Cleanliness is the emblem of the purity of mind.” Dad used to say, although I guess he picked the quote from a leaflet handed out by a spiritual business. Yet, it must be an omen - definitively a good one - in this memory emerging right now, when I start my journey as a pioneer of a brighter future.
Here it began, in this robust building where dad used to do cleaning. His yellow uniform was one shade different from the white coats of the other employees and his trolley seemed less scary than the lab trays pushed along the well-lit corridors. The illusion of belonging infected both of us. It’s not surprising for an eight years old, rather delusional for a migrant worker who dreamed about cleaning the way for his daughter straight up to the white-coat cast.
His stamina paid off. Against my odds, here I am in my white coat, newly appointed apprentice to the North-West University Botanical Research Department, completed all the health-checks, biometric registration and a mound of digital paperwork. Ten years after I’ve last seen Willie.
Every memory I recall about him is pureness. Transparent, sterile, intact. The boy behind the glass wall pushed his palm to the window, following my steps once I wandered off my dad’s route. He was pale, in snow white pyjamas, or it looked like to me, surrounded with toys. I reached out to his palm, mirroring his move and I pressed my nose against the glass. It was fun. He was in. Our breath left a mist on the surface, adding to the squint illusion as we stared at each other.
Like many other lonely kids, I wanted to impress whoever I met. “Look!” I said, and I reached into my pocket, giving not a thought to the sound-proofing. I didn’t know about that. “Conkers!”
The effect surpassed my highest expectations. My collection utterly enthralled Will. He pointed his index finger to the seeds, then to himself. I nodded. He, with a genuine, radiant smile, waved and moved towards the corner of his room.
I’m ushered around the laboratories and offices. My chaperone Kasun – a handsome biologist one grade senior to me – introduces the building I nurse so many sour-sweet memories of.
Ironically, he says not to touch anything, like my dad, when mopping and dusting around whilst I entertained myself. I remember a rack of harsh green ferns beyond a door ajar, but Dad pulled me off when I slipped into the lab. His apologetic tone embarrasses me no matter how many years passed. I’m allowed to enter today. This is my new place.
After a brief introduction, I imitate a mature, professional calm as my new colleagues – I can’t memorise their names yet – show me the project. The ferns gone, I can see mushrooms and blossoming shrubs under tiny domes. I know we will study the effects of various radiation and extreme condition on plants; I earned this job by my paper about the use of aesculin found in horse-chestnut might be extended against UV-B radiation.
I pocket a few encouraging remarks before we leave. We reach a door I’m sure wasn’t such an impenetrable make when I last been here. The “entrance prohibited” pictogram which is at my eye-height now should have been there, although I don’t recall it.
“Slow down.” Kasun pulls a smile. “You can’t enter this wing. Neither do I.” he waves at the sensor. “Retina scanner. It’s Dr Harris’ private place.”
“Dr Harris? He’s the ring-master, isn’t he?” As an act of vain defiance, I stare at the graphite colour panel. The scanner activates and the door opens. I look at Kasun for advice, but his dull gaze betrays him. “How is that?” he mumbles, while I step inside. He dares not follow.
I rediscover the unit, much amicable than it used to be. The carpet swallows the echo of my cautious steps and a tasteful selection of contemporary art sheds welcoming colours from the walls.
Willie’s glass cage was over the corner and there was a loose panel on the footing he would remove, offering a gap just enough to see each-other and to pass by the sound insulation. My precious conkers sealed our friendship. After that evening, I would look forward to the days Mom worked late shifts, and I joined Dad at work.
Willie would always have waited eagerly to hear my childish stories about the outside world and it made my relatively eventless life way more interesting in my own eyes. Once I had to bring a photography of my classmates and tell about the other kids, their habits, hobbies, and the complicated social web of ours. In exchange, he shared almost nothing private. When I quizzed him, he said he was special, as his parents said, therefore, he had to hide. “Are you ill?” I asked. “Mom said so. Dad says I’m gifted.” The sad shine in his premature eyes rang a bell, although I rather sensed than understood the confusion of a kid in the epicentre of a broken marriage.
Our innocent adventure got an abrupt end. Dr William Harris, the director – I memorised his name and face from the information board – had checked on his dominium at an unusual hour. Once, in the middle of a barter when we exchanged luxury quality pencils for cheap marshmallow (it wasn’t cheap in comparison to my pocket money) Will turned around and I followed his glance. The panic that distorted Dr Harris’ face was contagious. My guts trembled and my face went red, as we had done something wrong. Shot by a wordless beam of anger, I ran away to Dad, following the wet path on the shiny pavement.
“Wait at the reception area, sit down and read some magazine.” Dad’s fingers ruffled my hair as he repeated the usual instruction every time I crossed his way. “I’m coming soon.”
“Yes, dad” I replied with a creaky voice and I spent the rest of the evening on the top of a reception-chair, concentrating on the latest issue of the Royal Botanical Review.
The next day, Dad earned a promotion. He became a supervisor of the cleaning team at the leisure facilities and sport cafe, for a slightly higher wage. These premises were at the edge of the eight acre territory of the University and his access card expired with immediate effect.
I published my first – and last so far – study in the Royal Botanical Review.
Soon after, my tutor rang me overenthusiastically that they offered me a position. I was over the moon too, to be honest. Until today it feels like a revenge, although I don’t know what for. Willie, maybe. For the friendship stolen from us.
My legs carry my body forth the corridor, my mind is wondering in the past searching for the boy behind the glass cage. Instead, there is a classy studio at the end. An oak desk, a bookshelf alongside a wall, and an enormous plant pot.
Not a bonsai, it’s an actual tree in the room. I touch a pale green palmate leave waving in the light draught. I’m mesmerised by the perfection.
“So you met my best friend?” a soft baritone drags me back.” Best, after you,” he adds. I turn to the source of the voice. It’s him, tall and bony, with a trimmed beard. In his eyes, though, I recognise the incarcerated boy.
“Willie?” I reach my hands out in a tentative hug. Is he special or ill? I don’t want to cause an allergic reaction or something, so I freeze in that position for a moment.
“I knew you were coming back.” he whispers. “We knew.” he corrects himself, fingering a leaf of the horse-chestnut. “I nourished our conker, and it fed the hope in my deserted soul.”
“It is from the conker I gave you?” I ask in awe. “Magic.”
He set a laughter. “Just science. That’s why you came here.” the warmness of his tone and his glance somehow scares me. “I need someone I can trust.” He carries on, unaware of my inner alert.
He’s my Will and I reject my instincts too.
“Fancy a secret?” he winks.
“Indeed.” I reply with a childish grin.
“I’m special.” he claims seriously, and I detect a shadow of doubt on his face. “Are you ready?”
“I’ve always been.” I reassure him and I mean it.
He undoes his shirt. It’s a white silky mixed-material, I notice needlessly, whilst I try to compose a firm, unmistakable yet polite objection.
But he turns his back to me, leaving me speechless.
Leafy green skin covers his back. I can see the web of nervation as his muscles strain. Then he turns to me, resigned to my verdict.