Take the square root of a love story, multiply by an awkward mathematician, add on cringe-worthy close encounters, and what you’ll get is Resistance Is Futile – a whirlwind adventure by Sunday Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan.
Mrs Harmon wasn’t particularly pleased to be forced out of her cosy caretaker’s cubby-hole to show yet another newbie around, and she wasn’t afraid to show it.
‘Here’s the main office,’ she said with bad grace. So far this week it had been generally polite young men with shy smiles or clever, blinking eyes.
This lanky girl with bright red hair didn’t fit the pattern at all, so she wasn’t going to waste half her morning in the freezing corridors pointing out toilets.
She sniffed, regretting as she did so eating her lunchtime KitKat at 9 a.m. again. At least when she worked in a prison there had been a bit of banter from time to time. But academics – bloody hell.
How was it a job anyway? Sitting around, drinking coffee and leaving their cups unwashed for her to collect like some kind of cup fairy. And they got paid way more than her, she was sure of it. For scribbling their funny signs everywhere. Sometimes Mrs Harmon wasn’t entirely sure academics weren’t just all pretending, like a very elaborate form of benefit fraud.
It would have surprised her to know that Dr Connie MacAdair, PhD in probability algebras, Glasgow, post-doctoral scholar in probabilistic number theory, MIT, tipped as a possible future Fields medallist and with an Erdös number of 3, sometimes felt exactly the same way.
* * *
‘Sorry, did you say this was the main office?’
If asked to describe what she was looking at, the first phrase that would have occurred to her would probably have been ‘bunker, following a nuclear attack’.
‘Open plan,’ sniffed Mrs Harmon, as if this were an excuse.
The grey room was beneath ground level in the ugly modern block; its few bolted windows showed people’s feet tramping to and fro in the rain. It was large and dark and square, very gloomy, lined with tables like a primary-school classroom.
There were no computers, just rows of empty plug points. The most overwhelming impression was of balled-up paper and wadded, overflowing bins. Blackboards and whiteboards lined the walls. Several of the latter had print-out facilities, and great curls of paper rolled across the floor like unfurled tongues. Connie has seen pictures of the maths department: it was beautiful. This was clearly some overflow holding area.
There were paper cups and paper plates, often holding the traces of previous meals. It smelled of mathematics, which felt comfortingly familiar to Connie: a mixture of dusty, crumbed calculators; hastily applied deodorant; old coffee with, underneath it, an unlikely yet undeniable whiff of Banda paper ink.
It was currently empty. And not at all what Connie had expected after the flattering interview, the amazing offer of a post-doc fellowship in her very own specialty, in one of the most beautiful academic cities on Earth, digs included, no teaching, just pure freedom to work for the next two years.
This, she reminded herself, was a dream job, an unexpectedly amazing opportunity in these days of cut research budgets and straitened universities. She’d been on cloud nine since she got the letter.
‘So, here you are,’ said Mrs Harmon, pointedly looking at her watch.
‘Oh yes,’ said Connie, her heart suddenly beating a little faster. She’d thought this job was too good to be true. Maybe she’d been right. ‘Um, yes, I suppose . . . is there a desk for me?’
Over in the far corner was a small cleared space, with one dead pot plant sitting in the middle of it.
‘Okay,’ said Connie, turning round, perplexed. ‘I just have a few more questions . . . ’
But Mrs Harmon was gone. She moved, Connie noticed, surprisingly fast for someone with such a low centre of gravity.
* * *
Connie glanced around, just in case her new colleagues had decided to hide under their desks and jump out and throw a surprise welcome party for her that would then go awkwardly shy and wrong. It had happened before.
But the room was deathly silent. She crossed it and looked up at a window and the grey paving stones. Then she pulled up a little chair and hauled herself onto it. Well, that was better, if still not the beautiful book-lined office in an ancient sun-dappled tower that she’d allowed herself to imagine.
Just beyond the pathway that bounded this big, ugly building was straight countryside: they were on the very verge of the campus. In the distance, nearly hidden by the drizzling rain, were the rolling gentle fens that surrounded the college town; closer in, a patch of grass criss-crossed with muddy paths gave way to fields – real live fields with sheep in them.
After three years in a grey, sooty, vibrant Glasgow faculty, it was a revelation. Connie looked for a window to open. They didn’t.
The rain was coming down stronger and stronger, although through the distant low hills, the occasional slant of sunshine was visible. Suddenly, at the end of the far field, she made out something through the rain. It was moving very slowly. Very slowly indeed. At first it looked like some kind of odd, slow-moving
square robot, lumbering under its own steam, but she realised it couldn’t possibly be. For starters, it was brown. Who would ever make a brown robot? Eventually the visual clues coalesced: what she was in fact looking at was a piano. A piano moving across a field. In the rain.
Was this rag week? Had they motorised the piano? Was this some kind of ridiculous stunt? Connie had been in academia long enough to have seen them all and wasn’t really in the mood. She was about to turn away when the piano trundled forwards a little more and she realised that there was somebody out there. Someone – a slim figure, tall and lanky as a Giacometti – was pushing the piano. He – it appeared to be a he – was absolutely soaking wet. His white shirt clung to his back and he was wearing a pair of thick-rimmed glasses which were dripping.
But she knew for a fact that pianos were heavy instruments. They weighed a ton, there was nowhere to get a grip and they were resolutely unwieldy. Yet this big, scrawny drink of water out in the field by himself seemed to be hoofing it along absolutely fine.
Drama soc., she thought with a sigh. There was probably a drunk medical student inside shaking a bucket for rag week. The setting of her new university might be very different, but students didn’t change much.
* * *
She turned back round to the room. There was a large unsolved equation on the massive whiteboard at the far end, and a brand-new whiteboard pen laid out temptingly. Unable to help herself, Connie went forward and deftly and tidily solved it. Until it came to putting up the solution of 8.008135.
‘Ah,’ she said out loud. ‘Very funny.’
She re-solved it to 04.0404 just as the door creaked open tentatively.
Connie smiled patiently, although inside she still felt nervous. Since she was six years old, at the athlete-for-tots conference, she was used to being the only girl, or thereabouts. It still boiled down to people at parties introducing her as some kind of perpetual student, or her freaking out men who, when she told them she was a mathematician, tended to stutter a lot and talk about their GCSEs as if her job was a direct challenge to their masculinity.
And here she was again, the new kid, in another classroom, in another town. It was meant to get easier, but it didn’t, particularly.
* * *
A large man entered. He had frizzy hair, glasses and a huge beard, and resembled a friendly bear. He glanced around nervously, then smiled as his eyes rested on her.
‘Whoa,’ he said. ‘You.’
‘Hello?’ said Connie. She didn’t recognise the man at all and wondered who he was looking for. ‘I’m Dr MacAdair.’
The man’s large brown eyes widened.
‘And they keep on coming. Nikoli puzzles, right?’
‘Might be. Who are you?’
‘I’m Arnold,’ said the man, not at all put out by the brusqueness of her question. His accent was American. ‘Arnold Li Kierkan.’
‘Oh, I’ve heard of you!’ said Connie, relieved. They shook hands. ‘The cake cutter. BM Monthly.’
‘Oh great! Want me to autograph that for you sometime?’
‘Uh, I’m not . . . oh. Right. I got you. Very funny. But hang on.’ She paused. ‘We’re in the same field.’
‘Yeah, actually I’ve seen you at about nineteen conferences.’
Connie went a little pink. Being a female mathematician in an unusual field was a little like being famous, except without the money, adulation and free clothes.
‘Uh, yeah,’ said Connie. ‘But . . . I mean, I don’t understand . . . I mean, I thought this was a statistical analysis fellowship. Like, one fellowship.’
Her heart suddenly plummeted like a lift. She couldn’t have misunderstood, could she?
‘I mean . . . I thought I passed the interview. I mean, I’ve given up my car . . . I’ve moved out of my flat . . . I mean, if we’re in competition now—’
‘Uh, do you want to breathe into a paper bag?’
‘What? No! I want someone who can tell me what’s going on.’
‘Calm down,’ said Arnold. ‘It’s all right: we’re all here. Nobody knows. Evelyn Prowtheroe . . . ’
‘You’re not serious?’
He had named the acknowledged leader of the field, whose last job as far as Connie was aware was Professor Emeritus at the University of Cairo.
‘Ranjit Dasgupta . . . ’
Then it struck her.
Connie took a deep breath before she mentioned the next name herself. As it happened they both said it at the same time.
‘Sé Weerasinghe . . . ’
‘Oh, you know him?’ said Arnold pleasantly.
Connie gave him a narrow look.
‘Well, so obviously, you, Complete Stranger, already know that I do.’
Arnold raised his large hands in a gesture of appeasement.
‘No, no, no.’
His round smiling cheeks went a little pink, and Connie looked around for something to else to do or, if all else failed, fiddle with.
* * *
It had been the pairs conference in Copenhagen. There had been something local and revolting called eau de vie. And dancing. Mathematicians dancing was rarely a good look, so there’d been more eau de vie to make the dancing better, which also somehow improved the taste of the eau de vie.
And then . . . a very tall Sri Lankan boy with cheekbones that could cut glass and a charmingly deep voice. A primes race which had ended up upstairs. The seduction had taken place in front of everyone she’d ever collaborated with in the history of the world.
But that was not the worst of it. The worst of it was, when she left his room the next morning and went back to her own to change and wash her face, by the time she got down to breakfast it was entirely clear from the looks everyone gave her and the large collection of guys round Sé’s table that he’d already told everyone.
But he did not stand up to greet her, nor did he say anything.
She had looked at him and he had blushed to the roots of his dark hair. She had simply turned around and left the dining room. He had contacted her later to try and explain, to apologise, even to ask her out again, but she had never replied: the awful humiliation of walking into that room full of everyone discussing her was behind Connie’s deep and utter commitment to never ever dating other maths people, even though it was four years ago now and they were still the only people she ever met.
She still flushed bright red to think about it, which she tried her best never to do. And what had been huge anger at Sé’s behaviour had mellowed now, of course – but she wasn’t keen to be working with him again, not a bit.
‘Beautiful country, Denmark,’ mused Arnold.
‘Hmm,’ said Connie.
Grinning (and, Connie suspected, getting his own back for her not recognising him), Arnold extended an arm around the room.
‘Well, anyway,’ he said. ‘Welcome to the bunker.’
‘How long have you been here?’
‘Um, three . . . four days?’
‘It is a bit of . . . well, totally . . . a bunker,’ Connie went on. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘Those bastard physicists get all the good stuff. Did you see their new facility? Ludicrous big white thing, looks like they all work in a gigantic Apple Mac.’
‘Haven’t seen a thing,’ said Connie, yawning. ‘I took the sleeper. I haven’t even found my rooms yet.’
Arnold cheered up a little. ‘Oh, they’re a lot nicer than this.’
‘Less nice than this is quite a concept. Seriously, everyone thinks I’ve moved to some kind of amazing castle. With a portcullis in it. And battlements.’
There was a sudden shouting down the hallway, and a large banging noise.
Arnold popped his head back out the door.
‘Hey! You can’t bring that in here.’
‘Well, obviously I can,’ came a laconic voice. ‘The real question is, how far?’
Connie followed Arnold out of the bunker and into a corridor, where a large grand piano was tightly wedged. Standing in front of it, dripping wet but seemingly completely unperturbed by this fact, was the exceedingly tall, slender man she’d seen in the field.
‘Uh, hi?’ she said tentatively. The man stared at her curiously. His eyes were dark and intense, behind thick-framed glasses.
‘Oh yes,’ said Arnold. ‘I knew I’d forgotten someone.’
‘You have . . . ’ The strange man made a gesturing movement to the side of her head. He seemed to be groping for the word, and Connie wondered where he was from. The amount of people who felt the need to point out that she had bright red hair never ceased to surprise her. ‘. . . hair,’ he settled on finally. He couldn’t seem to take his eyes off it.
‘This is Luke,’ said Arnold finally. ‘I’d like to say he’s not normally like this, but so far . . . ’
‘Hi there,’ said Connie politely. ‘What’s your field?’
Luke squinted at her, like he was trying to take his eyes off her hair but couldn’t quite manage it.
‘Oh, this and that,’ he said vaguely.
‘Luke, you’re wet,’ said Arnold, changing the subject quickly. ‘You need dry clothes. You’ll freeze.’
Luke glanced down as if he’d just noticed.
‘RIGHT,’ he said. ‘Clothes. Yes.’
And he turned around and marched off, ducking under the piano, which he left wedged in the middle of the corridor.
‘Mrs Harmon isn’t going to like that,’ predicted Arnold. ‘Particularly after the whole . . . nest incident . . . ’
‘This isn’t going to be like other maths departments, is it?’
‘No,’ said Arnold sadly. ‘Cardiff’s got a lacrosse team.’