I’d never seen his mother before. If there’d been a funeral I suppose I might have seen her there, but of course there wasn’t one. All the same, I spotted her right away. She was standing at the front of the chapel: tall, dressed in black, waiting quietly for the memorial service to start. She looked sad—well, I mean you’d expect that, but what I’m trying to say is she didn’t look grieving sad, just terribly lonely. She held herself straight, like she was going to show everyone she was still in control. There were quite a few people around her but she still looked isolated. Even when she sat down in the front pew with someone on each side it was like she was alone. Nothing could get near enough to touch her.
You know how it is when you meet a mate’s parents for the first time? You’re curious to see whether they take after their mother or father. Well I am, anyway. It wouldn’t have been polite to stare but whenever I could sneak a look I suppose I did take a more than usual interest. She was handsome, aristocratic-looking. The hollows under those high cheekbones followed right down and outlined her jaw. That and the wide mouth gave her face a squarish, determined look. All the resemblance was in the lower part of the face, I decided. He had a square jaw and a wide mouth as well. Also he had these two creases running right down from the cheekbones. Her mouth was set, and you could see she had two dimples in the same place. I couldn’t see the colour of her eyes from where I was, but her hair was dark, almost black—unless it was dyed—whereas his was more of a straw colour. So I suppose the hair colour and the broad forehead came from his father. I’ll never know that because her husband wasn’t around. I don’t know what happened to him. From what I understood she just had the one child and brought him up on her own. I was thinking how hard all this must be for her, but if it was she certainly wasn’t letting anyone see it.
After the service was over, people filed out and a queue formed just outside the chapel, so they could say something to her before they left. I didn’t know anyone there and I don’t suppose he would have recognized the half of them either. I noticed there wasn’t anyone representing the University, and I thought that was a bit bad, but I suppose they had to be careful about making it look like they accepted responsibility.
It had clouded over a bit by now and people were looking anxiously up at the sky, as if they might dissolve if a drop of water hit them. And then two minutes later they’d do it all over again. I suppose they just felt ill-at-ease, distracting themselves while they were waiting in the queue.
I wasn’t thinking about the weather; I was wondering what I’d say to her. “Hallo, Mrs. Dukas. I’m Michael. I was a friend.” That seemed too distant. “Hallo, Mrs. Dukas. I’m Michael. I was Rodger’s friend.” That was closer to the truth. Closer still if I told her we’d worked side by side. Only then she might ask me what the two of us had got up to in that lab. And if I answered truthfully they’d bang me up: in jail if they believed me, in an asylum if they didn’t. So it’s better all round if I keep my mouth shut. Which is a pity, because what we did together was truly amazing.
Actually my Mum’s the only one who ever calls me Michael; everyone else calls me Mike. And I never called him Rodger, either; it was always “Rodge”.
We met in the first year of the course. University fitted Rodge like a glove. He was tall and self-confident and from day one he looked like he’d already been there for a full three years. The rest of us were milling around in those first few weeks, trying to find our feet. I certainly was.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was supposed to be there at all. Physics may have been my strongest subject at school, but I wasn’t brilliant at it, and the old place wasn’t exactly top of the national league tables when it came to university entrance. So you could have knocked me down with a feather when Prince Albert University sent the acceptance letter, because physics is very big at Prince Albert. I was quite a celebrity with the teachers too, when they’d got over their astonishment.
Of course I started to wonder how I was going to cope. As it turned out, the first couple of weeks were fine, because they were covering stuff I’d already done at school and I was beginning to think, “Hey, this is all right”. I didn’t realize they were just bringing everyone up to speed. After that they switched to a higher gear and I don’t mind telling you it was quite a struggle to keep up.
I made a few friends and we did some fairly serious drinking in the bar down at the Students Union. Rodge never came; he couldn’t be bothered with anything like that. He had a lofty manner and he didn’t seem to need friends. The others sensed that, and steered clear of him.
I’ve no doubt there was a bit of resentment there as well. He could obviously cope so much better than the rest of us with the academic stuff. You know, he’d stick his hand up and ask a question in the middle of a lecture and I’d wonder how on earth he’d understood it enough to ask a question when I was still trying to grasp it at all. The lecturers soon found they couldn’t fob him off with any old answer either, because he’d come back at them again and again till he was satisfied. He was hard on other students too, especially in tutorials. He had no time at all for people who thought they knew what they were talking about, but actually didn’t. He’d argue them into a corner and make them look really silly. If it got too embarrassing, the tutor had to step in. Of course, that didn’t exactly earn him a flock of admirers either.
After one lecture I was just as fogged as usual and I said to myself, “Hell, I’ve got nothing to lose”. So on the way out I worked my way over to Rodge and moved at the side of him.
“You seemed to get the hang of that pretty quickly, Rodge,” I said.
He didn’t even glance round.
“It’s not that difficult.”
“Not for you maybe. But that last bit had me floored completely.”
He stopped and stood looking at me, frowning. All the other students were pushing past us. I waited for the brush-off.
“That was the whole point of it. What was it you didn’t understand?”
“Oh, I was all right until he got to Green’s theorem. After that he lost me.”
He looked thoughtful, as if he was working through the entire lecture in his head, which he probably was. Then he said:
“Well, do you want to go down to the common room and have a look at it?”
We sat down in the common room, and he took out a piece of paper and a fibrepoint and proceeded to work it through in a way I could actually follow. I asked him about something else a few days later, and again he didn’t mind at all. It was really good; even the lecturers didn’t have his knack of explaining things. By and by we sort of gravitated to each other. When it came to practicals we were expected to work in twos, and Rodge and I were an obvious pairing.
I tried to draw him into the social scene but he wasn’t the slightest bit interested. So ours wasn’t what you might call a friendship, at least not a normal one. We just expected to see each other every day, and we’d sit together in lectures and work together in practicals and go to the same tutorials. Come the weekend I never saw him.
There was an incident in the Final Year that’s worth mentioning. We were covering a lot of nuclear physics at the time and Rodge had a difference of opinion with the lecturer. The argument went on a bit longer than usual and the others got restless, coughing and shuffling their feet. Afterwards Rodge and I took up our usual places in the common room and he behaved as if nothing had happened. Then Malcom Goodrich came by.
Malcom strikes you as being round in every way: round body, round face, round glasses. He’s also on the short side, so as a specimen of manhood he doesn’t have a whole lot going for him. Mentally—that’s a different matter. As far as the rest of us were concerned he was one of the brightest guys in the year. So when he stopped by, looking at Rodge with a supercilious grin on his face, I prepared myself for fireworks.
“I must say you do come out with some surprising things, Dukas.”
Rodge eyed him levelly. “I do my best.” After an immaculately judged pause, he added, “Goodrich”.
“You surely don’t mean all that stuff about matter waves!”
“Every word of it.”
He laughed. “The boys with the big particle accelerators had better pack up their bags and go home then. There’s no future for that sort of physics. Rodger Dukas says so.”
I glanced at Rodge. There was a muscle moving in that lantern jaw. A danger sign.
“I didn’t say that. I said that particles weren’t the only way of looking at matter.”
Goodrich raised an eyebrow. Rodge sighed, then pointed at him. “Look, if you were working in optics—designing a telescope or a camera lens or something like that—would you be thinking of light as a wave?
“You know I would.”
“And if you were designing solar panels? Would you treat light as a stream of particles—photons?”
“Well, there you are. Light has the characteristics of both waves and particles. You simply choose the model best suited to what you’re doing. The same’s true for matter. For the sorts of experiment we do at the moment, it’s easier to think in terms of particles. But it’s only a concept. There’ll be other experiments for which a wave treatment would be more appropriate.”
“Yes, and what flows from it.”
“You’re living in the Stone Age, Dukas.”
And he marched off.
I glanced at Rodge, expecting him to shrug off the encounter, but he was muttering in a demented kind of way. I picked up the words “brainless” and “blinkered”. I wasn’t even sure he knew I was there any more, he was kind of talking to himself.
And suddenly his head came up and he looked right at me. His eyes are a sort of ginger colour, but very pale, so he always looks a little bit wild. But this was a really piercing look, and it made the back of my neck prickle.
“I’ll show them,” he said. “I’ll show them all.”
Even for Rodge it was a bit extreme. Evidently he had a bee in his bonnet about matter waves, but then he had strong feelings about a lot of things. I didn’t attach too much importance to it at the time.
“That’s it, then, Rodge. Last one finished. I can’t believe it’s all over.”
We were strolling away from the examination room. We never discussed the exams themselves; it was a sort of an understanding between us. For Roger, exams were beneath his dignity anyway. I think he once called it “trotting out clichés so that the pigmies can match your knowledge against theirs”. For me it was simpler: if I’d just made a pig’s breakfast of what I thought was my best question there was no way I wanted to find out straight afterwards.
“You’ll be off home, then,” he said.
“Yes. I shifted most of my stuff last weekend. I just have a few things to bung in my suitcase. I’ll go back tonight. What about you?”
“Oh, I think I’ll go to France. There are a few people I can look up over there. Change of scene—you know.”
“Well, I suppose I’ll see you at the graduation, then.” Something about his expression made me add, “You will be at the graduation, won’t you, Rodge?”
“No. I shan’t be coming back for that. You know how I feel about these pantomimes.”
“What about your parents?”
“My mother you mean?”
“Er, well, yes—whatever.”
“It’s not for her to decide, is it?”
I was thinking, it bloody well would be in our house.
“I guess it’s goodbye, then. Well, thanks for all your help, Rodge.” He actually winced.
“I didn’t give you any help, Mike. We had some chats that’s all. Anything you’ve achieved you’ve done on your own.”
“Okay, okay, I found the chats helpful, is all I was trying to say. Right, then. Best of luck, Rodge.”
“You too, Mike.”
He strode off. No slapping of shoulders. We didn’t even shake hands.