Fourth week of January
Ren is trying to have a sleep-in, but all he’s really doing is moping about Wren. How could he have let such a sensational young woman like that slip through his fingers? Why did it matter that she’s only twenty-one? That summer will burn forever in his memory, not as a brilliant memory to cherish, but as a mocking image of what his life could have been like if only he hadn’t been so stupid and proud. If only he hadn’t assumed that someone else like Wren would be along within weeks. He misses talking and joking with her even more than he misses the bodily entrances and exits. Perhaps he should go back to moping about Lily instead.
The phone rings. It’s Miles. Has he seen this morning’s newspapers? No. Miles says that two of the papers today carry reports of a Lucius Birch, Professor of Psychology at Grayvington University, being suspended for possible academic fraud. The reports say that Grayvington University has refused to comment, and Lucius strongly denies the accusations. Lucius, it is said, is expected to make a public statement soon.
It’s not surprising that the papers have now got the story. Ren heard from Miles a few days ago that Lucius, according to Lucius, has been rewarded by the University for his hard work and success by being given a sabbatical for the semester. Sabbaticals are never given out like that, and certainly not at such a late stage, with such little notice – Lucius was supposed to start teaching his usual Social Psychology class next week, and now someone else will have to do that at the last minute. Although there’s been no official announcement about Lucius being suspended, and Robot is still saying nothing, it’s clear to those in the know that it’s a suspension, not a sabbatical.
Then rumours started up on the UK Psychology e-mail lists. First a rumour was passed on that a Psychology Professor has been sacked for faking data. Then the rumour changed to the Professor being suspended. Then someone posted some hints that those in the know could use to identify who it is. Then the list owners shut down the discussion, but too late to stop a lot of people from being able to work out who the person is.
Ren feels a little pang at hearing that the papers are now reporting the accusations against Lucius. He would have liked to have broken the story via an article somewhere himself, listing all of the claims against Lucius, but not only are his hands tied by the University, as an academic (and a sort-of colleague) he couldn’t do that without giving Lucius a chance to explain himself. And what if it somehow turned out that Lucius hadn’t faked anything?
Ren asks Miles to try calling his old girlfriend Tanja, who now works for the local rag The Daily Gravy (shortened from its original name, The Daily Grayvington), to find out what she’s heard. Tanja started a couple of years ago as a freelancer contributing the occasional arts-based story, but now she’s on staff, and she usually covers University-related stories. They still stay in touch, due to Tanja still having feelings, or rather loin-based desires, for Miles.
Later on, when Ren is at his office searching the internet for Lucius-related stories, he gets another call from Miles. Tanja said that Lucius has called a press conference today. She wouldn’t say where, though – she says it’s press only. Miles thinks she’s buddies with Lucius these days, through Tony Shaver. Miles knows that a lot of press conferences in town are held at the Royal Square Hotel, so he has just called them to ask what time the Lucius Birch press conference is, and they said 11:30. It’s 11:15 now. Ren tells Miles to get in his car and pick him up outside the Terminal Building ASAP.
When they get to the hotel, there’s nowhere to park, so Miles drops Ren off and heads for a multi-story car park. By the time Ren has found the room, he can hear that the conference has started. He pauses outside the open door to listen.
‘…victim of a right-wing conspiracy to de-legitimise my research, led by a right-wing academic called Ren Christopher.’
That’s my cue, thinks Ren.
‘Hi-de-hi campers!’ he says loudly, entering the room. All the heads swivel towards him. ‘It’s right-wing conspirator Ren Christopher here. My ears were burning so I thought I’d pop into my Rupert Murdoch-funded teleporter and beam myself straight here.’
There’s a dozen journalists, including Tanja, some photographers, and two camera crews in the room. A woman waits at the side of the room at the front. It’s not Lenora Helminth, though – she and Lucius broke up last year. I wonder if Lenora got a whiff of what Lucius was up to, Ren thinks.
‘What are you doing here?’ demands Lucius, looking very angry. I hope he tries to punch me, thinks Ren.
‘I’ve come to hear all these exciting tales you’re telling about me to the press,’ says Ren.
‘You weren’t invited.’
‘Invited? Is this a private press conference? I thought this was all about making a public statement?’
‘Seeing as you’re talking about me, I think I’ll stay for a while, old chook.’ Ren hopes this will prompt Lucius to rush over and try to punch him, or manhandle him.
‘Dr Christopher, do you want to say anything about this issue?’ asks one of the journalists.
‘I may have something to say, but it’s only fair to let Professor Birch have his full say first. It’s his press conference.’
Lucius continues on, clearly flustered.
‘I will say again that the accusations against me are false.’
‘What are those accusations again, exactly?’ says a journalist.
‘I’d rather not give these baseless accusations further legs by specifying them,’ says Lucius.
‘But whatever they are, they’re false?’ says the journalist.
‘Yes,’ says Lucius.
‘Can you explain why they’re false?’ asks another journalist.
‘I’m not a liberty to do that either.’
‘So what was the point of calling a press conference if you’re not going to say anything?’
‘To assert my innocence in public. Look, my hands are really tied here. The University has asked me to not to comment in public on anything specific. But my name has been dragged through the mud by your organs this morning, and I feel I am entitled to at least stand up in public and say that I am not guilty of…’
‘Of academic fraud?’
‘It is absurd to even use that phrase in connection with me.’
‘But your University of accusing you of it?’
‘No. No, they are not. Let me make this very clear. My University has not accused me of anything at all. It is Ren Christopher who is accusing me, an armchair philosopher who doesn’t understand the practise of scientific research. The University is just looking into the situation. They are trying to work out who is the liar, him or me.’
‘So you’re calling this man here, Dr Christopher, a liar?’
‘Yes I am,’ says Lucius. Desudation is starting to drip from his brow. The journalists turn back to look at Ren. He’s lying back comfortably in his seat, one arm draped over the next chair, not paying attention.
‘Oh,’ says Ren. ‘Has he accused me again? Well. Naughty boy. You know I do feel for Dr Birch being named in the papers this morning. At the moment he is an innocent man, and he is entitled to say something publicly in view of that. But I never said anything publicly about him, and now he’s saying in public that I’m a liar, when all I have done is provide the University with an analysis, performed by several people, not just me, pointing to… irregularities… in Professor Birch’s research. Irregularities which I’m sure he can easily clear up. Just a pity the newspapers got involved, and a pity that Professor Birch resorted to public mud-slinging.’
‘I am just…’ begins Lucius.
‘What was in that report, Dr Christopher?’
‘Oh, well, that’s not public at the moment. And this is Professor Birch’s stage. I wouldn’t want to rain on his parade. Perhaps he can clear everything up now for us, and close the case.’
‘Professor Birch,’ says a reporter, ‘there are rumours online that no-one has seen you or any assistant do any data collection for your studies for years. Would you care to comments on those accusations?’
‘They’re not accusations. They’re merely observations on my mode of working, which is to go out into the field to collect data, rather than do it all in the artificial environment of a University laboratory. There wouldn’t be any issue about this at all were it not for the muck-raking of my political enemies.’
‘Those enemies being Dr Christopher? Anyone else?’
‘I don’t know who’s behind him, no.’
‘You think he’s being funded to do this? Who by?’
Ren is grinning at all this. He can see Lucius getting more and more nervous. It would have been so much easier for him to tell lies about Ren if Ren had not been here. Perhaps he should move on to blaming something more amorphous and less present, like the Jews.
A journalist turns to Ren. ‘Perhaps you would like to reply to this, Dr Christopher?’
‘He’s not entitled to say anything,’ yells Lucius. ‘It’s not his press conference.’
‘Oh Lucius,’ says Ren. ‘I can easily invite these gentlemen and ladies to my own press conference in the corridor in five minutes time. But perhaps I can turn pressman myself, and ask you on behalf of my blog – yes, I too qualify as a reporter, of sorts – a question.’
‘No, no questions from you,’ says Lucius, as Ren gets out some pieces of paper from the inside pocket of his coat.
Lucius looks desperately at the woman at the front, as if he wants her to manhandle Ren out of the room.
‘This is Professor Birch’s celebrated “Dirt and Discrimination” paper that appeared all over the international media a few years ago. A study undertaken at Grayvington’s own dear old train station. But look! Here is a signed letter from the General Manager at Grayvington train station, who swears that neither she nor any of her staff have any awareness of any such study taking place at that time in the train station.’
Lucius’s face turns from very red to very white in an instant.
‘Hey, that was a neat trick you did with your face colour then, Lucius’ says Ren. ‘It’s like you’ve had an internal eboulement.’
‘We did a, er… guerrilla study,’ says Lucius.
Ren is tempted to say, ‘You used gorillas to ask the questions? Is that why never needed help from grad students?’ But he decides against it.
‘I didn’t get permission,’ Lucius continues. ‘I just went in and did it anyway. I thought if we asked they might say no.’
‘So you’re saying, then,’ says Ren, ‘that somehow you did all these tests at a train station, a train station with a foyer that isn’t all that big, and none of the staff noticed? They didn’t notice you getting lots of commuters to read stuff and fill in forms? And then somehow you single-handedly made the train station dirty, and swapped all the signs around, and none of the staff said, “Hey, why are you putting dirt and litter everywhere in our station?”’. And then you left it like that while you got more commuters to read stuff and fill in forms. And then you cleaned it up again, and put everything back to normal, and still none of the staff noticed?’
‘Yes,’ says Lucius firmly, his jaw twisted an an uncomfortable angle. ‘That’s the end of the conference. Thank you for coming.’ Lucius turns to leave. The journalists besiege him, shouting questions at him. The photographers decide that this is a good time to take lots of snaps.
‘Lucius!’ shouts Ren. ‘Lucius! Don’t go doing anything silly, like going to the roof and jumping off.’ Although he says that semi-seriously, he also hopes that Lucius will come over and try to punch him for saying it, right in front of the cameras.
Lucius escapes the pack with his female friend through the side door, which is then locked from that side, or else someone is holding the handle firmly. The press decide to lay siege to Ren instead.
‘Have you got anything more to say, Dr Christopher?’
‘Not really, it wouldn’t be proper to do so while the investigation into Lucius is ongoing. I just wanted the chance to defend myself against accusations made against me in public. By the way, did anyone see that episode of Seinfeld last night? It’s the one where Lloyd Braun is selling all those computers over the phone, and poor George can’t sell any. Old Lloyd is racking up the sales, he’s just relentless, it’s too good to be true, he’s leaving George in the dust. And then it turns out that Lloyd’s phone isn’t even connected. Very nice episode. I recommend you catch it sometime soon.’