Chapter 3: Jay
Chapter 3: Jay
“All religions are true.”
- Mohandas (Mahatma) Ghandi
“Is anything happening?” Kate asked.
“What’s that in French?” Jay was desperate to learn the language as soon as possible, and for the last forty eight hours he had been posing language questions to Kate, as although she was English, she spoke it fluently.
“Esc-ce qu’il se passé quelque chose? said Kate, which made no sense to him, and sounded like everything else she said when she spoke French: incomprehensible but hugely attractive.
Is there anything happening? Jay thought to himself as he gave an excited grin. She’s so gorgeous.
He found her more beautiful than any woman he had ever spoken to, which he found unnerving, and yet she didn’t seem to know it at all. Jay had only met Kate two days earlier, when she had collected him at Toulouse airport, but they had gelled immediately. Jay had flown in to begin his sandwich year work placement from Bangor University, just as she had done three years earlier. He was studying marine biology and had found himself a placement at ENSAT, a postgraduate college in Toulouse. Overjoyed at the prospect of furthering his studies while learning another language and really getting to know French culture, Jay was in very high spirits. They had driven down from Toulouse together the day before, and had two weeks of experiments to do at a marine laboratory just outside Marseille, before they returned to Toulouse to analyse the results in a fortnight’s time.
Kate had done the same placement in 1995, but had then returned after her finals to do a master’s degree, and they were swapping stories of university experiences. They had already discussed their favourite Bangor lecturers plus the ones they didn’t like. The lists were similar, and they had much else in common, but Jay couldn’t help but feel a little inadequate in his current environment. Jaw-dropping beauty aside, her command of the French language and familiarity with French customs made her appear totally at ease in their surroundings, whereas he was unable to ask someone for the time of day.
“Are you sure you’re OK, sat here in the square with all these people around, or would you like to go back to the halls of residence?” She pulled a tiny piece of gravel from her elbow as she asked. “It’d be cooler.”
“I’m fine for now,” he turned away from Kate who sat right in the corner, and twisted to look at the rest of Place St George behind him, “I’ll let you know if that changes” he shrugged, “we’re only a minute away.”
Jay would have been happy just to sit and soak up the novelty of the Mediterranean atmosphere, although it was somewhat marred by the football fans everywhere. He had heard some Scousers shouting from outside the hotel across the square behind him, but chose not to turn around. He just sat cross-legged, blissfully facing the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. He wasn’t dressed for the weather; jeans were all he wore at home, and he was feeling very hot, but he confused it with the nervousness he felt in her presence. He sat and sweated, and rubbed the back of his slowly-cooking neck.
Some football fans chanted something about England in the distance, and he shook his head disapprovingly. Kate picked up on it.
“You don’t like football, do you?” she asked.
“It just does nothing for me.” He was about to say that he found it a totally pointless, slightly downmarket affair as Kate seemed quite posh and well-spoken. He had been thinking that she was probably privately educated, a follower of rugby if anything, or possibly even horse riding.
“I’ve always lived in Tufnell Park in Islington, not far from Highbury – so I’m Arsenal, born and bred. My boys - Seaman and Keown are here playing for England.”
Christ I can’t even gauge that right. Everything about her seems so natural and effortless. It must be so easy to go through life so obviously attractive and intelligent. I don’t know any girls even approaching her looks, and any that come close at uni have terrible attitude problems and wouldn’t even look at me.
“I don’t really do sport,” he explained. “I’ve always thought I’d rather be an aesthete than an athlete, so I spend my spare time reading books - exercising my brain instead.”
He hoped this might get the conversation away from football. Appearing intellectual was Jay’s standard behaviour when in contact with the opposite sex. It wasn’t voluntary; it was more of an automatic refuge from his awkwardness and insecurity. As a result he preferred the company of outwardly intelligent women, at least that way he felt they had some common ground and he could relate on some level. They just never normally looked as amazing as Kate, and the more at ease he found Kate to be, the more internal conflict he seemed to feel.
“Where’s good to go, if I ever get to Islington then?”
“Upper Street has dozens of bars and restaurants, and Sunday lunch at The Junction Tavern is absolutely amazing… like you’ll ever go there.”
I could go with you he mulled.
He felt completely out of her league in terms of any romantic involvement, but maybe they could become good friends; he already enjoyed her company and despite his feelings of inadequacy, he felt quite close to her.
His eyes wandered towards his right, along the southern wall of Place St George. A few metres away was an alleyway that had been cordoned off for building works. Beyond that was a school, closed for renovation, and leaning against that sat a woman in a white T-shirt with a flag on it.
“So why Marine Biology?” Kate asked him. He found it slightly unnerving that she was asking fairly searching questions, even that she cared much at all.
“Well, Biology was down to David Attenborough’s ‘Life on Earth’” was the first thing that sprang to mind.
Oh that’s deep! he thought as he said it. His face tensed enough for Kate to pick up on it, but she led him away from his unease:
“Loved it!” she gushed. She seemed to have an innate skill for dissipating any inner turmoil on his part.
“I just thought the material he was presenting was so fascinating, the animals were incredible, and he made it all look so effortless… and the travel: I just wanted his job when I grew up.”
“Me too!” Kate answered, raising his spirits. “But, tomorrow night you’re not going to meet mountain gorillas or watch fluorescent tree frogs wash themselves; you’re going to stink of fish intestines and your eyes’ll be watering like you wouldn’t believe.”
“How come?” Jay wondered.
For the next two weeks, he was scheduled to work as a lab technician at a marine biology laboratory, an hour’s drive down the coast. They were to be picked up by a university minibus at noon the next day. Jay knew they were to be involved in a study of how much fish feed, and when, during a twenty four hour cycle, so that fish farms and other aquaculture centres could use the data when deciding on the optimum time and amount to feed them.
“You take a sample of twenty fish every half an hour,” began Kate, “you weigh them, cut them open, remove the gut and weigh them again, then record the stomach content’s weight separately.”
“Sounds lovely… and not cruel at all.”
“’tis a bit,” she conceded “but you’ve already treated them with formaldehyde, so they’re kind of drunk and sedated when you do it. Give ’em a bash on the head if you need to.”
Jay was struck with how she could come across as a hundred percent feminine, then switch to a brutal practicality that was quite masculine. The most beautiful tomboy in the world.
“Formaldehyde makes your eyes water far more than any onion, and we’ve never worked out a remedy.”
Jay raised his head and stretched his back, listening to some passers-by cackle at a joke he hadn’t heard. He thought about his state of mind for a moment, considering how he perceived the things around him. He listened to the voices just behind him in the square, and tried, and failed, to taste the warm, heavy Mediterranean air as he breathed it in.
What A–levels did you do?” he blurted out.
“Physics, Chemistry, Biology, General Studies” was Kate’s reply. “You?”
“The same but with Maths and English Literature.”
“Six!” He knew his academic record was of a supremely high standard. “Literature’s a weird choice” she said, as an afterthought.
I think if you study hard science you need to have a creative approach to it. All the great, truly innovative scientists, have this quality… sometimes too much of it.”
He shuffled around a little, to unstick his jeans from his thighs and to aid the blood flow to his legs. The gravel crunched beneath him.
“Even Sir Isaac Newton actively made some stuff up.” Kate tilted her head and raised her eyebrows at this. “I think he is one of the two greatest English scientists - along with Darwin - but he was so into spiritualism and alchemy that he let it cloud his scientific judgement.”
“What did he do?”
“You know when you split light with a triangular prism into the colours of the rainbow?”
“Yeah.” She looked suitably interested, and Jay loved telling this story.
“He was the first to do it, but he was so obsessed with the number seven, from his interest in the occult, that when he only found six colours, he assumed he must have missed one. He thought seven was such an important, pivotal, magic number, that he just invented another one and called it ‘indigo’, purely to make up the numbers.”
He raised his arms to demonstrate his disbelief, suddenly conscious of coming across like a geek.
“So there aren’t seven colours in the rainbow?” she asked.
“Should there only be six colours on the cover of Dark Side Of The Moon then?” Kate asked.
“There are only six on the cover, because Pink Floyd and Hipgnosis were so clever, they knew that there should only have been six.”
“Really? Wow!” Her blue eyes lit up and she beamed a toothy smile.
“Even people like Einstein and Darwin seemed to contradict their own major works towards the end of their lives, so where does that leave the world of academia? Where does that leave scientific fact?”
He wondered if she might even be impressed by his efforts to call into question major scientific doctrines.
Finally I may not seem like such a miserable dullard.
She was momentarily distracted by shouting from across the square and he leaned forward and lifted his shoulders to stretch his back again. The sweltering heat left sweat running down his back, and he briefly thought about investing in some clothes that were better suited to the climate.
“That’s where the creativity fits into science,” he continued, “deciding on the interpretation. We have the big stuff, but even with the infinitesimally small, measurement eventually starts to fail, and it depends on the observer. Our telescopes and microscopes get more powerful, so our understanding of the perceived universe improves, but when astronomers look at the universe beyond the naked eye, with radio telescopes and that kind of thing, they get data that needs translation into a meaningful image before we can directly understand it. It’s just like an electron microscope. Outside the senses, it’s not so much what’s being looked at, it’s who or what is doing the looking, and the method of observation which determines the result. The observer dictates what’s real.”
She seemed to be following the diatribe but looked restless.
“That’s why I’m so keen to learn French. I’ll have new concepts of language to use to describe the world around me. Describing objects as being male or female will be very strange, for an English bloke.”
“Sailors use ‘she’ for a boat.”
“Oh yeah.” He raised his eyebrows and smiled at the revelation. After thinking for a moment, he said: “In a year’s time I’ll have another frame of reference for perceiving and describing the whole world.”
“Get you, Mr Deep!” The potentially cynical statement was coloured with admiration, he suspected.
“Language dictates how you experience the world. I read somewhere that Cantonese, and some other oriental languages, don’t really have objects.”
“How d’you mean?”
He glanced around, then pointed at a wooden shutter above them.
“We’d say that ’is’ a shutter, but they’d describe it as ’being’ a shutter, because right now it’s being a shutter. It used to ’be’ a plank of wood, before that it was being a tree, and one day it might be firewood, then charcoal and smoke. The world is the sum of processes rather than objects. It’s probably why Taoism is so popular over there, ’cos that’s all about flow.”
She made a humming sound and nodded slowly.
“Speaking of French” he wondered, “you seem to speak it incredibly well for someone who’s only lived here for a couple of years. Do you understand everything that you hear?”
“Pretty much” she said, without arrogance. “My parents used to bring me over a lot when I was growing up,” she ran a hand through her hair coyly. “Then I came here for my placement two years ago, and I lived with an idiot called Jean-Luc for six months, until he two-timed me with an Alsatian.”
“A right dog, was she?” was the desired response.
“No, she was from Strasbourg.” Jay’s soft laughter quickly turned into a groan, but he knew she wasn’t offended. It was clearly not the first time she’d told the joke, and it wouldn’t be the last.
What’s ‘Alsatian’ - the dog - in French?
“Berger Allemand, which is the literal translation of ‘German Sheppard’.
“It is... but the cutest animal name I’ve heard so far is for ‘hermit crab’.”
“How do you say that, then?” Kate said something which sounded incomprehensible, ending in something like ‘hermit’ but it sounded beautiful when she said it. To Jay’s ears, she could easily pass for French when she spoke.
“Bernard l’hermit” she repeated. It’s literally ‘Bernard the Hermit.’
“It’s great isn’t it?”
He snorted, and she laughed her earthy laugh.
He watched as she ran the palm of her right hand down the back of her head, then painstakingly adjusted one of the large bracelets that hung loosely from her wrists. She was frowning slightly as she did it, and he couldn’t tell if she was simply concentrating on what she was doing, or if she was bored by her nerdy companion. He tensed slightly, and decided that he should try and keep his mouth shut.
He caught her eye as she was adjusting one of her bracelets again but she quickly folded both her arms, shook her blond hair and sank back into the adjoining buildings immediately behind her. He thought it looked very uncomfortable.
A small part of him endeavoured to remain silent and give her a moment to join in the conversation but he was struggling to contain his logorrhoea, driven by the awkwardness he felt in her presence. Luckily she spoke first again:
“You were saying that there’s no Western scientific basis for Traditional Chinese Medicine last night, but stuff can become provable, even though it’s not currently covered by conventional science” she suggested.
“Definitely. As Arthur C Clarke said: ‘any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic’, but it seems to work both ways. Things become real as we learn of them, and you can apply scientific principles until you discover how new phenomena work. There’s been lots of studies into TCM though, and they’ve found little more than the placebo effect in most of it, so far.”
He felt a small rush of adrenalin as he suspected she may be as impressed by his education as he hoped. Feeling the heat, he rubbed the back of his neck again, restlessly this time. She seemed to have nothing to add, simply sitting and looking at him with a half-smile, so he couldn’t help but carry on.
“Another favourite quote of mine is Carl Sagan: ’Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.’
I’m starting to bore myself!
He rolled his eyes and watched as she thought about this for a moment, before summarising:
“So you just expand your knowledge of scientific process until it includes all the other stuff?”
“I think so, or you just find why you are getting confusing information. Some folklore is rubbish, but some old wives tales have some truth. When you see a magician on television, you know there’s a reasonable explanation for what you experience, it’s just a question of more research and understanding. You read a book about the material – you alter or expand your perception by educating yourself, until you understand how the rabbit comes out of the hat.”
“I’m with you.”
“Loads of people think that all that they know is absolute truth. Scientists are bad at this, but it’s all just current ‘best guess’ as far as I’m concerned. We found out the world wasn’t flat, then that the sun doesn’t go around the earth, then that it is not the centre of the universe. The cleverest people in the world used to use the Isaac Newton model of gravity, but then we had Einstein and space-time, and now you’ve got superstrings and M theory. Thanks to Darwin and Mendel, we learned about genes and sperm etc, David Attenborough was already presenting television before DNA was even discovered: It’s still less than a hundred years since we found out where babies come from! It’s pretty arrogant to say you know anything concrete. Everything we know is gonna get updated or, at the very least, put into a new context at some stage. Knowledge is always being improved and rewritten.”
She laughed out loud, and said:
“Thanks for completely invalidating the last ten years of my life, studying biology.”
“It’s a bit depressing, isn’t it?” he laughed. Loads of it will turn out to be naïve nonsense, or contentious at least, although our branch is very practical: fish are feeding people all over the world right now… but imagine being an astronomer? Now, they can’t even agree on how many true planets we have in the solar system.” He was feeling a sense of wonder, mixed with disbelief.
“Aquaculture is a lot more practical than blue sky astronomy ’though isn’t it?”
“Usually, yes” he carried on, “but even the simplest of things can get twisted: we did a practical test at school to try out the different parts of your tongue that taste sweet, sour, bitter etc. Do you know it?”
“Yeah, I did that, too.”
“I got it wrong, and it turns out it’s all bollocks! There are no specific areas for experiencing specific tastes. There’s no difference between the left bit or right bit, or the tip, it’s pretty even. Sweet, sour, salty - everything. I got my only Biology C-grade ever in a practical, just because my sensation didn’t match the rubbish that was on the syllabus.
Both of them were smiling broadly, Jay hoped it was stimulated by the conversation.
“I suppose you’re the wrong person to ask about what’s happening in Coronation Street then” Kate asked him. He laughed again.
“I used to watch it a bit in my first year at uni, and it may be the best of the soaps, but after a while I got the nagging feeling that they get the odd good story line going, but they overlap with the crap ones and it gets just like they’re trying to string you along... and they are. I feel a bit like I’m wasting my time.
“A good story has to have a good ending. A good film, a play, a good book should all resolve themselves fully. It may be a thought-provoking, open ending, with a simple choice that you have to make yourself, like The Italian Job; but my favourites are the endings that you don’t see coming, where all is not what it seems. I like a revelation at the end of a story: a clean ending where you find out the real point of it all. Ideally a revelation or two along the way - something unexpected that keeps you interested, to see what might happen. You don’t often get that kind of thing with soaps.”
It was a full two minutes before a visibly nervous Kate asked:
“Will you be bothered by the crowds here, and all the noise?” She looked over his shoulder at the people threading from east to west through the far side of the square. “Like I said, I’ve been here before and this square’s normally really quiet, but the football has changed all that.”
“I’m glad we’re out in the open. I feel hot, but every now and then there’s that lovely breeze.”
She fiddled with her dangling cotton bracelets.
She watched as he looked up at the sky, then averted his eyes, squinting. He closed them firmly, then smiled as if he had a secret.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked him.
“When I was a little kid, my mother told me not to stare into the sun. So once, when I was six, I did.”
She struggled to respond to this.
“Have you seen the film Pi, as in the Greek letter?” he asked.
“No, never heard of it.”
“I saw it at the cinema a couple of weeks ago. It’s a thriller about, well, maths, kind of, without giving too much away, but it’s set to techno music, and it’s filmed in black and white. It’s super cool.”
“A super cool, black and white thriller about mathematics? Are you on drugs?” She winked. “My favourite film is The Emerald Forest” she told him.
“I don’t know it.”
“It’s set in South America, and a young kid gets kidnapped as a in the Amazon jungle. He lives in the forest with a native tribe for years while his dad looks for leads to find him. The tribe has no communication with the outside world and so have a totally different way of looking at everything. There’s a bit where there are a few of the tribe members that travel to the edge of their forest and look out over a clearing where the white men are cutting it down…”
Jay didn’t say anything but was already utterly transfixed by the story. A firework went off in the distance but in his mind’s eye it went off in the jungle.
“…In the distance you can see these huge machines and logging equipment carving out the distant jungle, leaving nothing but dirt for miles and miles. The tribespeople all look confused and appalled by the devastation and one says: ‘They’re peeling the skin off the world. How will she breathe?’ The oldest one says: ‘When I was a young boy, the end of the world used to be so far away, but now it gets closer every day.’ Really profound stuff.”
“Sounds brilliant” he said. “I’d love to go to the Amazon basin - to see those pink river dolphins.”
“Yeah, me, too. A friend of mine recently came back from there – another biologist. She was saying that everything you see there is so huge; the butterflies, the birds, even the leaves on the trees, they’re all massive.”
“Yeah, I’d love to see one of those for real… as long as the habitat lasts.”
“It pisses me off when people actively ignore warnings about the environment, on the assumption that we are just trying to save the planet.”
Kate nodded enthusiastically.
“The planet’s going to be around whatever happens, it’s the humans we’re trying to save.”
“Speaking of alternative systems of understanding, have you ever read a book called The Tao of physics, by Fritjov Capra?” he asked.
“Never heard of it.”
“It compares the modern scientific viewpoint of theoretical physics with eastern religions: Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism. He has a doctorate in physics, but it’s amazing how seemingly different paths of knowledge appear to have similar, converging conclusions about the nature of reality. True knowledge should be convergent, if only on the observer himself.”
“Don’t Hindus think the world rests on an elephant, standing on turtles or something?”
“I’d heard that as well, but Einstein, Heisenberg, Oppenheimer - lots of that group - were advocates of Buddhist and Hindu concepts, and scientific truth shouldn’t necessarily conflict with spiritual truth. Matter has its corresponding anti-matter, just like yin and yang, and quantum theory shows the interconnectedness of the universe, which is a bit like karma. Democritus gets the credit for imagining a basic fundamental building block of all things, the atoms that everything is made from-” he twitched at a sudden police siren nearby.
“Physics stuck with everything being made of atoms and nothing smaller, up until the turn of the century, when we developed new ways of looking at atoms in more detail - they are far from indivisible. You’ve got your electrons, protons, and neutrons, and also loads of other things; all the fermions and bosons, quarks and stuff. Eventually it all gets a bit fuzzy, and dynamic, like Shiva’s dance in Hinduism.”
Kate answered with:
“I’ve got A-levels in Physics and Chemistry, remember?” but the statement didn’t quite sink in.
“You have to use machines to measure the electrons and smaller bits and pieces because they’re too small to see. You can never have a completely accurate description of an electron, only an approximation. When you smash atoms up and analyse them, you can’t really observe what happens, only where the electron is, or its velocity, but not both. The mechanism you use creates an abstraction. You can’t decompose the smallest units and directly perceive the results. If you look at anything closely enough, it all just… unravels and dissolves.”
She ran her fingers through her hair nervously.
“Whether electrons are waves or particles depends on the observer’s choice of apparatus for measurement, not even counting the fact that the atoms are hardly there at all. They are 99.999-odd percent empty space. You and me and everything around us, is hardly there at all, it’s just a kind of buzzing… just like Brownian motion, which is just like Shiva’s dance in my view…. Anyway, what are you thinking about? Sorry.”
He was suddenly concerned about commandeering the conversation so thoroughly yet again. “I’m on a bit of a rant, I can’t help myself.”
“Don’t worry.” She made an effort to look sincere to humour him. “You can tell me what Shiva’s dance is, though.”
“Shiva is the Hindu god of creation and destruction. His energetic motion represents the rhythm and harmony of life - cosmic cycles of birth and death. He dances the whole world into existence, each fundamental particle at a time. Physicists would agree that sub-atomic particles do an energy dance… they kind of are an energy dance.”
“Aaaah.” She nodded.
“The Schrodinger’s cat experiment is just like the Buddhist koan of ‘if a tree falls down in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a noise?’ Or ‘if a premenstrual woman trips over in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear it, is it still my fault?’”
The joke was unexpected and she widened her eyes as she laughed loudly.
“When you look inside atoms, you have to use idealisations. The models are just constructs of the mind and they’re only observable in their relation to other stuff. Even physicists would agree that the concepts we use to describe nature are limited. Is it any more direct than meditation?”
“I can’t believe you can have such strong opinions on… almost nothing at all” she said.
He shrugged. He was used to being intellectually challenging, if not downright arrogant.
“It’s not just the small stuff, though.” He raised his head again, distracted by the ignition of some fireworks a few streets away. “On ‘The Sky at Night’ they might talk about discovering new cosmological phenomena: galaxies, dust nebulae and supernovae billions of light years away, but it’s as much a question of the new equipment they’ve started using. You can’t actually see any of it with the naked eye. If you can’t directly perceive something, how real is it? If it’s just data on a screen, the necessary level of interpretation is so much higher, be it big or small.” He rubbed his overheating neck. “You use a tool to change, or augment your capability for direct perception,” he smiled suddenly “just like I have .”
Kate looked a little disconsolate but he couldn’t help but continue his rant:
“And then there’s also the question of how much the observer affects the reality, purely by observing it… now that’s deep, but it makes my head hurt.”
“You sound more like a physicist than a marine biologist” she said. “I think you’ve missed your calling.”
“My interest in physics is quite recent, but yeah, I see what you mean.”
She watched some football fans over his shoulder as they burst into song in the centre of the square.
“I can’t believe you’re only twenty.”
He smiled and carried on, before she had the chance:
“Eastern religions generally consider all things and events to be interconnected and they emphasize the unity of the universe. For them the cosmos is one inseparable reality- bloody hell, listen to me! I think I’ve been writing too many essays.”
He rested his forehead onto the palm of his left hand, exasperated. Twenty seconds of silence passed between them before he couldn’t contain himself any longer:
“In ‘The Tao of Physics’ introduction, Capra says he took mescaline and other mind-altering substances and cites Carlos Castaneda as an influence in forming his own world view. I’ve read him, too. Ever heard of him?”
“Castaneda? Vaguely, maybe... dunno.”
“Castaneda was an American anthropologist living in California, who was studying the medicinal herbs of the Native Americans in the fifties. He heard about the peyote cactus, which contains mescaline, and rumours that it had special properties, so he went down to Sonora in Mexico to find out more. He was told to look for a Yaqui Indian Shaman called Don Juan, who was supposed to be the local expert. He met him and asked for some information about peyote…
“Don Juan said: ‘You can’t just learn about peyote in isolation like that. You have to learn all the ways of the Shaman to fully understand. But I can teach you’. Castaneda eventually took him up on his offer and became, basically a sorcerer’s apprentice. It’s absolutely mental. Don Juan gave him a few different hallucinogens: mushrooms, jimson weed and peyote, and they totally opened his mind to what is kind of another form of science… or system of knowledge, or whatever. The world of the Yaqui Indians has all sorts of bizarre entities populating it.”
She flicked a fly from her deeply tanned forearm and then readjusted one of her cotton bangles.
“A lot of people say Castaneda was just a drugged-up hippie, but he wrote five or six books, and drugs are only mentioned in the first one. Don Juan uses drugs to break Castaneda’s cynicism, which is very strong at first. He challenges, and eventually breaks his assumption that the world is absolute and static. Castaneda ends up divorced from western science altogether, and goes down a different path of knowledge.
“Sounds a bit left-field. My Science works well enough for me.”
“Don Juan maintains that it’s just a different path of knowledge but it is still a solid, inwardly provable system, it’s just that the two aren’t particularly interchangeable.
“I see what you’re getting at.” She was nodding thoughtfully. “Science, religion, just different lenses”
“Just personal point of view, same as everything. Having read Castaneda, I thought western science doesn’t necessarily cover all human experience. Just like Fritjov Capra says in The Tao of physics, which is still basically a physics book. I think I’d been limiting my ability to perceive reality in its entirety. Absolute knowledge shouldn’t be limited in any way. People who have followed a particular route of enlightenment for a very long time, are likely to be clued-up in some way, whether they’re a Native American brujo, a Tibetan monk or an emeritus professor of physics, chemistry, or anything else.
She nodded her assent.
“If truth be told, Castaneda’s detractors have a lot going for them too, but it’s more the underlying message. There are a great many ways to perceive all this.”
He raised his hands to indicate the world around them, and she nodded her approval again. He continued:
“There is also the problem that a lot of so-called science is nothing like objective nowadays: its direction is distorted by money and politics. It used to just be a question of finding out how everything worked, a real blue skies approach, but now that’s all changed.”
“The aquatic biology we study certainly makes people money, but it’s a source of protein for people in South East Asia and the African Great Lakes, so there’s an immediate and tangible benefit”
“I’m not talking so much about what we’ll be doing over here - that has great humanitarian benefits, as well as the obvious ecosystem management stuff, but last summer I worked in a microbiology department at a veterinary school. The research was paid for by funding from the pharmaceutical companies that made the medicines. The aim wasn’t so much to find treatments for the animals’ suffering, it was to find economically viable medicines that cost less money.”
“I see what you mean.”
“A girl I know called Muriel did a PhD in Solid State Physics” he said. “She thinks her tutor has been given his professorship, purely because he brings in lots of funding from electrical companies, not because he’s academically good. He’s shooting up the academic structure but he’s a total arse, apparently. Any perception of brilliance is completely false and it’s money that drives the direction of his research.”
“You really don’t sound like the stereotypical kind of drug user”
“What’s a drug user? A cigarette addict? Queen Victoria? She took cannabis and opium, she even took cocaine with Winston Churchill. Sigmund Freud gets credit for introducing cocaine to the medical profession, mainly because he loved taking it. What about a farmer in the Andes drinking coca tea to fend off hunger?”
“I never really approved. I’m basically tee-total, too.”
“Someone on chemotherapy is a drug user. Even Paracetamol. What about a bodybuilder or Tour de France rider who takes steroids? They’re certainly not unfit. Judy Garland was given drugs by her film studio to delay the onset of puberty, plus amphetamines to stay constantly perky. What about the people who say ‘Don’t even speak to me until I’ve had a cup of coffee in the morning’: a psychological addiction to caffeine. It’s all drug use. It depends on the person.”
“You’ve obviously given it some thought… Along with everything else in the whole universe.”
“Obviously there are huge health and sociological differences between habitual use of heroin and a Lemsip for a bad cold, but it’s all just fiddling with blood chemistry a bit. Even people addicted to extreme sports or self-harmers are addicted to their own endorphins in a way.”
“I know about endorphin rushes… The brain’s reward system.”
“It’s socially accepted for people to take medicine when they’re unwell, what’s to stop people wanting to feel better than well, and using chemistry for that? Even the World Health Organization states that ’Health is more than the absence of disease. Health is a state of optimal well-being. What if people just want to relax? Where should you draw the line?”
“The issues that people have with drugs usually relate to the law, health, or morality. Illegal drug use obviously poses legal complications, and you can end up in prison. Drug wars have a truly awful toll on almost everybody involved, and create a huge cost for the rest of society with policing and the public health issues, but what about cigarette smokers and alcohol users? They constitute a huge risk to the public health, without breaking the law.”
“I suppose so. It can be a slippery slope though, can’t it?”
“Hundreds of thousands of people experiment with a spliff at university and don’t go on to try anything else illegal, ever. They don’t become hard core drug users or become a drain on society in any way, they’re just exploring. Yes, heroin is a curse in some communities, but the communities themselves are very much a factor.”
“Drugs can be a terrible kind of escapism, though, can’t they?”
“Yeah, but it isn’t always just raw escapism like some people think, and they can lead to a productive life. Francis Crick got a Nobel Prize for finding the structure of DNA, and he was on LSD when he had the revelation. His insight turned out to work perfectly in the lab when he applied what he had envisioned during his trip.”
“Yup. And Kary Mullis says he wouldn’t have discovered PCR testing without using LSD. Everyone from Florence Nightingale to Bill Gates has used drugs, and that’s not even to mention the positive, creative influence on music, writing and the arts. Aldous Huxley took mescaline and wrote the The Doors of Perception about his experience, and that’s where Jim Morrison got the band’s name from. That’s pretty positive if you ask me. There are quite a few hallucinogens: mushrooms and cactus and stuff that you can buy legally and safely over the counter in Amsterdam.”
“In a shop?”
“Yeah. My parents have a houseboat there, so I go over occasionally.”
“Do you smoke the evil weed when you’re there? Do you smoke a lot?”
“Tobacco is the evil weed…” He broke into slightly manic laughter as he said it, and she suddenly looked apprehensive. “Highly addictive and quite poisonous. Marijuana is just ‘a beneficial shrub’ to quote Howard Marx. But actually, I hardly ever smoke it.”
“I’m surprised, given the way you’re talking.”
“I really like it, but I want to maintain my high grades and get a First at uni, and eventually get a PhD. I think I need to stay sharp.”
She shuffled in her place as her legs were getting stiff, and wiped her forehead with the small cotton scarf she had wrapped around her wrist.
“I just smoke it a few times a year, usually in Amsterdam. Enough to get seriously relaxed, but without jeopardising my academic career.”
“You’re a nutter aren’t you” she nervously adjusted the dangling scarf on her other hand, briefly revealing a thin scar over the middle knuckles.
“How did you do that?” he blurted out.
She froze. He waited for an answer and noticed that she seemed to be starting to shake a little.
“Are you OK?” He reached towards her, to touch the back of her hand.
‘I got it a few years ago in the Red Sea, off Egypt. I was snorkelling and scraped it on a reef when a big wave took me.’
He tilted his head as he looked at her. He could tell she was trying to remain calm, but she flushed red and continued an almost imperceptible twitch.
“Really ugly, isn’t it?” she suggested, tentatively.
“There’s absolutely nothing ugly about you…”
“You should try spending a day in my head.”
“… absolutely nothing”.
He shook his head and frowned as she looked down at the scars on her uncovered hand.
“Actually I didn’t really get them in Egypt” she said after a few seconds. “I don’t like to show them in public.” She manoeuvred the cotton bracelet so the scars were out of sight of her new friend.
“I actually got them at boarding school.”
“I was bulimic from about eleven years old. I used to vomit so often that my front teeth got slightly eroded and sharpened by stomach acid.”
He reached out again and held her hand softly, without looking at it.
“I got the scarring on my knuckles from pushing my fingers down my throat.”
“I’m over it now, but I suffered with Body Dysmorphic Disorder afterwards. My Mum died when I was three and I was a very fragile kid. I couldn’t go out in public without extra long sleeves or something else to cover my hands. For me the scars kind of fanned out like waves on a pond.”
Reflecting on her disfigurement made her shudder, but then mercifully she said “I’m much better now though… Much better.”
The vest Kate wore was bright pink, and earlier, Jay had had to concentrate on looking her in the eyes, and not drift down to her breasts. He was overheating, and he could tell that the sun would soon be above the roof and that he would get even hotter.
His pulse rate increased a little, and he heard some football chants from a street or two away, he guessed they were singing in French but he couldn’t tell for sure. There was also a hint of music he half-recognised from the hotel in the opposite corner of Place St George. The moment’s confusion led to a sudden but deep sense of urgency, a sensation of exhilaration, and the pink of Kate’s vest suddenly looked far brighter than it had moments earlier.
“Ahhh” said Jay. He could feel his eyes widening.
“Is it starting?” asked Kate, and at once he recognised the music: it was Pink Floyd’s ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’.
“Yup. I think the mescaline’s finally starting to kick in...”