“Where has Byron wandered off to?” I ask Tristan. “Are we doing the meeting or not?”
For the past year, Tristan and Byron have been helping me run Wrongcards. For years now this has been an endeavor I have run solely by myself, but they started helping me out last autumn when I promised them lots of work for no reward other than the satisfaction of making me rich. Today we are supposed to have a meeting on the fourth floor of the building in which we work. We’re part of a bioinformatics lab, but I won’t get into that now because Byron is still missing.
“I think he’s gone to get a sandwich,” Tristan offers.
This is, of course, the most probable reason because our front-end developer Byron is always wandering off to get a sandwich. Or to have a nap. Byron is a great believer in the nap as a restorative for Life’s Every Ill. Left to his own devices he’s the sort of bloke who’ll take three naps in the middle of the day. I’m the creative director and front-end designer in our lab and at Wrongcards, which means part of my job includes disrupting his sleep cycle. That, and my commitment to systematically terrorizing upper-management goes a long way to explain just how I manage to have two jobs that I love. Tristan is both back-end developer at Wrongcards and a biological software engineer in the lab. Wrongcards might also be for Harvard staff what Harvard Lampoon is for Harvard students: in other words, a complete embarrassment, but for entirely different reasons.
Let’s take a moment to clarify something. I dropped the Harvard name back there, but you have to understand that when I ran away to America to avoid police questioning about a suspicious hedge fire that I basically had nothing to do with, I had no great expectations. I was just a working class kid out of Brisbane who happened to want to work at a great academic institution, but MIT wasn’t hiring and Harvard was a few kilometers away so whatever, man. When life gives you lemons you rob a nearby convenience store, as the old man used to say. I’m still a rockstar web-developer at the second best university in the region, that doesn’t mean I turned into one of those kids who go about in tweed socks and smoking a pipe. I wear my best hoodie and my second cleanest cargo pants to work every day and I swear a lot, because that’s how my Irish criminal ancestors coped with the memory of being put on prison hulks and shipped off to a beautiful island. So I don’t know why you had to go and bring up class like that in your minds, because there’s no need for it and I’m not even remotely tetchy about it. But it’s because I swear occasionally, isn’t it? Well that’s just how my people express themselves, man. It’s called a dialect, and there’s no need to oppress it. Just because I didn’t go to fancy-shmancy equestrian schools like you habitually clean-shaven middle-class people doesn’t mean I missed out on anything. You know where my people vacationed? Rural New South Wales. We’d camp out near an oyster farm and after dark the whole family would sneak down the river on boats and raid the nearby oyster farms by moonlight. And I’m grateful for that, or I’d never have found out I had a shellfish allergy or gotten to ride in a helicopter on an overnight airlift to Brisbane’s Princess Alexandria hospital and get fed ice-cream from a carton with Danish words on the outside. So I guess I’m saying it all evens out in the end.
While we’re on the topic of my life’s accomplishments, you should also know that I happen to be the Captain of the Harvard Medical School Cricket Team. Unfortunately, due to a complicated assortment of reasons, I am currently the only member. Once or twice a month some student, staff or faculty member writes to me and asks if they can try out for the team and I always have to write back and say with great regret that unfortunately we are not currently taking any applicants.
But if I was letting people onto the team I’d definitely make Tristan our twelfth man and field Byron at Silly-Mid-On. Of course, I can’t see any reason for them to ever need to understand what I just said because I would never let them onto the team. Ever. Because Tristan’s that guy who memorizes all the stupid rules of a game but can only ever seem articulate those particular rules that are to his advantage. And Byron would lose us every game by taking ill-timed naps.
Whenever I think about Byron these days I can’t help wonder if it’s true that some people just have super powers. Nothing’s for certain, of course, but I can tell you that my friend’s life can be summarized in this way: Byron Eats For Free. In the year since we hired him into our lab at Harvard, I have only seen him purchase food on three occasions. We remember it because when it happened we all stopped and looked in fascination. He’s a slender, good looking man with a vague, dreamy air about him. He has this unfathomable, unintentional way of making other people feel instantly sympathetic and protective of him. Now, I like Byron a lot, and you’d like him too, but we work alongside the top medical minds in the country and no one has a single explanation as to how Byron manages to attract so much free food.
Look, if Byron was to ever get himself lost near your house - and that is honestly not an improbable thing to happen - when he showed up at your door asking for directions you would take one look at him and invite him inside. And, before you knew what you were doing, you would probably cook him a nice, hot meal or order pizza or something.
You wouldn’t know why, of course, and I wouldn’t know either, nor can I explain why it is that I’m always making the guy meals. But there it is. Because if you spend any small amount of time with the man you will witness several uncanny situations that involve strangers, often attractive women, approaching the guy with different plates of food. It probably doesn’t matter, we should all just accept it and get on with our lives. I guess it’s because we’re really good medical researchers that we can’t let the issue go.
So anyway, the kicker about it all is this: after he’d devoured everything on his plate in your kitchen, he’d stick around and wash the dishes while you made him banana muffins to take with him on the rest of his journey.
And I can’t help but add this: occasionally I make promises to myself, like ‘I will not to feed the guy this week’, and then by Thursday I involuntarily find myself making him lasagne because he’s sitting there on my couch looking so lost and hungry.
So, we’re in a meeting and Byron has finally appeared but instead of a sandwich he is holding a paper plate on which is balanced an apple, a small tub of yogurt and two pastries.
“Let me guess,” Tristan says, “Leftovers from the catering from the conference upstairs?”
“Yeah, they were giving away all this food…” Byron mumbles sheepishly.
Tristan and I exchange looks. Byron shivers. He is paper-thin, he looks like he hasn’t had a square meal in months. It’s just a ridiculous situation, really.
“Okay, let’s begin,” Tristan says, shaking himself out of his reverie. “Kris, what are you working on this week?” “The blog post!” I declare.
Admittedly, it’s been a protracted problem. Writing blog entries is difficult for me because, much as I like writing them, I’m not too interested in describing the things that happen to me, and the tricky thing about all this is that most of the things that happen around me happen primarily to me.
Much as I wish this were otherwise.
I generally prefer to talk about my friends, but there’s been a lot of pressure lately, and many requests at Wrongcards for me to get back to business at the blog, and others have emailed in, wanting to interview me and find out more about the “mysterious Australian with an odd predilection for ducks.”
I suppose if you too happened to be a mysterious Australian with an odd predilection for ducks you might understand my reluctance to discuss the issue, but maybe for now you should just take what I’m saying on faith. I’ve never felt any pressing need to clarify anything and it’s only with supreme reluctance that I’m going to go about describing a backroom meeting with the men behind Wrongcards. That reluctance is partly why I keep digressing.
“What have you decided to write about?” (This from Byron)
“Well, I wanted to finally get around to talking about the really strange things that happened to Tristan and me when we went to Spain, and all about Paco, of course, but it’s such a long and complicated story…”
“Oh come on man, you have to tell that story…”
“I will,” I promised, “once I can work out how to make it not sound too fantastical, but this week I think I’ll just write about what happened to me this morning.”
They look at me blankly, and I remember they don’t have twitter accounts. I’d dutifully reported the entire sorry business there. My friends don’t love me, I guess.
“Well, I’m sitting on my couch trying to work when the migraine hits. Within twenty minutes I’m unable to function. I’m on the couch shivering under a blanket, clutching my head. Then the nausea comes on. I spend perhaps half a minute wondering if a major vomit might be imminent. Suddenly I lurch onto my feet and begin to run to the bathroom. I take less than two steps, trip over my dog Chloe, who happens to be laying in the doorway, and then I stumble and… vomit onto her head. There is a moment, frozen in time, when I’m looking at her in horror and she’s looking at me with a mixture of grief and amazement. Then I limp into the bathroom and spend a few minutes in there washing my face. I come out and Chloe has cleaned up the vomit for me. I wipe her head down with paper towels. She has recovered her dignity and has decided to act as if nothing untoward had happened. Marvelous creatures, dogs.”
There is kind of a long pause.
“Because,” I add, “if I’d happened to have vomited on either of your heads, I don’t think you’d have let it go quite so quickly.”
I didn’t say so, but it occurs to me suddenly that there is no better anecdote that might explain why, if I was ever caught in a house fire, I’d quietly escort my dog out of the building first and then stand outside for a little while wondering if it was worth going back and just, you know, rollick about inside, noisily waking up everyone. Chloe doesn’t like it when I rollick about making loud noises, see. We’re both very sensitive beings I guess.
“I don’t think you should tell that story,” says Tristan, meaning the thing about the vomiting on Chloe’s head.
“Maybe,” suggests Byron in that diplomatic tone of his, “it could be mentioned in passing.”
“Alright,” I sigh. “Damn it all. Now I’ve got nothing to write about.”
“You can create a story about anything,” he says. “You do it all the time.”
“No I don’t.” “Yes you do.” “Well, I suppose I do.” I like to pretend to lose arguments occasionally. It makes the others feel good and it costs me nothing.
Suddenly a middle-manager busts through the door and, because we haven’t booked the meeting room, we start to say things like, “collapse that reticulation of splines into a corrective genetic vector…” And it’s knowing how to say things like this that explains how we got our jobs at Harvard at the first place.
“Excuse me, would any of you like to help out on the fundraiser on Sunday? We’re looking for volunteers.”
“Oh damn, I can’t,” I say. “Did I tell you guys? I’m already booked up that day with my charity work. I’m trying to raise funds for a special hotline to help people who say ‘oh snap!’ or ‘burn!’ whenever they hear a good riposte.”
If you’re at home wondering with what tone exactly you should ever say things like that, I’m going to suggest you go with ‘heartfelt and grave’.
“There’s just so much work to do,” I continue, “but I really believe we’re making a difference. They are such inspiring people.”
“He actually is very busy,” explains Tristan to the middle-manager as she vanishes. “And he needs to rest.”
“I might put in a donation in her name,” I mention to myself, “from that swear jar.”
Then Byron says, ”Well, I’ve been thinking. Another thing you could write about is-”
I cut him off. “Why do you have to make everything an argument?”
“I’m not, I simply-”
“Now you’re just disagreeing with everything I say.”
I felt good, I suppose. There’s no other explanation.
Byron bites his lip and I look at him with expectation.
“He’s in a snit,” I diagnose out loud to Tristan.
“He must be.”
“Why are we talking about him in the third person?”
“Whenever someone gets into a snit I like to talk about them in the third person until they calm down.” “I don’t know…” says Tristan, staring at Byron who has a mouthful of pastries.
“You don’t know what?” I ask, momentarily puzzled by his confusion. I have to admit I can’t always keep up with the uncertainties of my friends. They are such creatures of doubt.
Byron and Tristan exchange glances.
“What I was saying,” continues Tristan primly, “is that I can’t decide-”
“Well the world can’t wait for you to decide if Byron is in a snit or not, Tristan.”
I guess I really am in a good mood. It’s usually the situation. I think it’s because I let myself swear a lot in the workplace. It takes away a lot of the pressure and my annoyance at dealing with all these clean middle-class people who grew up going to equestrian schools or something.
“If you’ll let me continue..” says Tristan.
“Oh no, no, no,” I interrupt. “I won’t let you do this. You guys are always running circles around me in these conversations with your complicated rhetorical tricks. I’m putting my foot down today.”
“This is going to be one of those unproductive, We Got Nothing Done meetings, isn’t it?”
“Look, if we don’t work this out I’m going off to team practice with Harvard Medical School Cricket Team.”
“Hey how’s that going by the way?”
“Well, you know. Out of nothing comes something.”