They sat in Terry’s office on stiff-backed chairs. Two untouched mugs of tea and a plate of soggy Bourbons perched on reams of paperwork on his desk. Terry didn’t like tea, but he always made himself one when visitors came because it seemed to make people less self-conscious than when they drank alone. Now things such as tea and biscuits seemed old-fashioned in this newly made world. But Terry didn’t mind that. He’d felt old-fashioned since he was a small boy.
The surface of the tea had formed a skin, wrinkling under the air conditioning like geriatric flesh. He thought of mentioning his observation to the man from the Government – Donald was it? Or Dennis? – but his thoughts often made other people feel uncomfortable. Though Janey had never minded.
The Government man’s suit was as creased as his face, as if he’d used the jacket as a pillow. His skin was greasy, grey as the ring of dirt around his shirt collar. Yes, standards had dropped since the beginning of the outbreak.
Donald / Dennis scratched his forehead with bitten down nails. ‘Doctor Goddard, if you can tell me anything about Doctor Faber’s movements over the last few days. Anything at all.’
The man looked exhausted, but then they all were. He and Janey had taken to napping on the chaise longue in the corner of the office rather than bothering to drive home. They were both single. No one missed them. He gazed at the sofa now, at the threads of gold that could only be strands of her hair.
‘Doctor Goddard. Please. This is a matter of national security.’
‘We were trying to find a cure -‘
Donald / Dennis leaned forward, his tie shifting the papers on the desk. ‘A cure funded by the government, with key research and statistics supplied by our departments.’
All Terry knew was that she had been there one evening, peering over her notes, twisting her hair on top of her head with a biro, and gone the next morning. He hadn’t noticed the slides were missing until the phone rang.
The Government man’s jaw clenched. ‘I cannot stress how important it is we regain those samples.’
He didn’t mention Janey’s safety, that she was out there alone, the world dying around her.
When Terry had picked up the phone, her voice had been faint and breathy through the receiver. He thought she might have been running. Or crying. ‘I’m sorry, Terry,’ was all she’d said. ‘I’m so very sorry.’
Donald would take the words as an admission of her guilt, but Terry knew them for what they were. A goodbye.
I fancied revisiting Terry and Janey, two scientists caught in the jaws of a catastrophic disease outbreak. To read their first outing, When the time comes, see here.