To love, mankind’s greatest gift

Scotland, spring, 1996


“Do you want to start a fight?” Harold finally asked, his face tight.

“No,” Shelly answered. “I don’t want to start a fight. I want to start a family.”

He sighed. “We’ve been over this a thousand times. The risk is too great now. It’s unfair to bring someone into the world with no opportunity for a real life.”

“What about being unfair to me and to us?” Shelly stood up from the table and blew out the candles. She silently began to collect the dishes, scraping leftover scampi into a bowl.

“Shelly, I am being fair to you, and to us. We’ll have a child when the chances are in our favor, not the opposite. I’m not against having children. You know that. I know you want children. So do I.”

She stopped to look at him. “I don’t know that,” she insisted. “I don’t know that you want children. I don’t know that you would accept whatever we would get. And even if our child didn’t have a genetic defect, it might have something else wrong.”

Harold was quiet. She was well aware of the probabilities. Why would she bring this up now?

As she stacked the dirty dishes, Shelly continued. “Even a short life is better than none. Life has no guarantees. Not ever. Honey, to see one sunrise, to hear one nightingale, to smell one rose, to fall in love one time. If that’s all you can have, that’s enough. It isn’t the length. It’s what is experienced and what can be shared. Together, we can provide for any kind of child.”

Harold kept his head down. “All I’m saying is to wait awhile. My research will find a cure, and soon. We have to be logical about this. What we’re talking about is not an emotional issue. There are facts. We can’t ignore them.” He looked up. “We’ll have our family, a healthy family.”

Shelly turned toward the kitchen. “I know, I know. If we wait a couple of more years, the probability of having a healthy baby increases by 68.7 percent. Wait until this, wait until that. Hal, sometimes doing what feels right, is right. None of your science, none of your statistics. Only what is inside.” Harold put his hand on her arm as she passed. She looked down, tears formed, but she managed enough of a smile so he didn’t notice. “How long can we wait before it’s too late for us?”

“I promise. We won’t wait too long. I’m working on it.”

“I know you are,” she said as she turned back toward the kitchen. “Where would you like coffee?”

“By the fire in the study. I need to look over a couple of articles for a defense of my ridiculous position on genetic research. Jim Quigley emailed me from Oxford saying I have managed to miss the point of the last twenty years of DNA laboratory findings.”

“Well, have you?”

“Now, don’t you start. I’m having enough trouble with the department, the medical school, and the University grant board, especially Blakeslee. He’s sure I’m a complete idiot and that I’m doing all I can to waste university money. He acts like the funding is coming out of his own wallet.” Harold continued to talk as he left the dining room. “If it wasn’t for a research team that is brilliant, I’d give up the project and we’d move to Tahiti.”

“I can’t hear you,” Shelly called from behind the kitchen door, “but if you’re talking about Tahiti, I’ve already packed. You won’t believe the bikini I have for it.”

Early the next morning, Harold ran his Volvo up the long asphalt drive to the half circle of old stone buildings, the largest of which housed the medical laboratory. For centuries the family home and out buildings had stood on this small rise of fertile Scottish farmland, surrounded by rolling fields of wheat and tidy pastures dotted with sheep and cows. The upper two floors of the main house had been converted into offices and classrooms while the basement became staff cubicles and the animal laboratory. Just past the front door, he pulled into the space marked Research Director and stopped inches from the stone wall. Hustling toward the building in the chilly April morning air, Dr. Harold Spencer carried his weekend work in two bulging brown leather briefcases with two piles of manila folders stuffed under each arm.

“Good morning, Kate.” Dr. Spencer nodded as he greeted the thin, middle-aged lab receptionist sitting at her desk wedged into the entry hall. It was her temporary office with just enough room for her desk and chair, but she had personalized it with pastel chalk drawings of animals she had done herself. Her many paperweights were also dogs, cats, canaries, and even a hippopotamus.

“Good morning, Doctor,” she replied, habitually adjusting the sweater that covered her shoulders. Kate had been with the university all of her working life and was despondent when she was transferred from the comfortable muted tweeds of the English department to the starched white medical research lab. She had hoped for an eventual genteel retirement from her former post. Now, four years later, she would leave her job only if bodily dragged away by a Royal Company of Marines. Her job at the medical lab was a figurative shot in the arm for the chronic hypochondriac. Everyone there was an inviting ear to her litany of dire and mysterious symptoms, presented at length while the listener stood waiting for messages or mail.

She no longer described her ailments to Dr. Spencer since he scared her with the possibility of her hair falling out in large clumps. She liked to be diagnosed with exotically rare, potentially fatal, yet pleasant diseases. While Harold watched, Kate sifted through the mail and fax messages that had arrived over the weekend. She stacked a dozen letters together and stuck them under his less cluttered arm.

Like an overloaded porter, Harold wove through reception into the former dining room, now stuffed with cardboard boxes, file cabinets, and journals and books piled on every flat surface that functioned as the informal department library, then past a two-hundred-year-old, four-inch thick oak door to a narrow hall which led to the basement stairs.

He carefully descended the worn stone steps that led to the crypt-like subterranean quarters of gothic stone arches, sudden twists and turns, and the faint hum of the ventilating machinery. During storms, the old wiring caused the lights to flicker and often put the basement into total darkness. The large space was divided into three sections, one for housing the rats, dogs and monkeys, one for equipment, and the third for a handful of researchers’ offices, which lined both sides of a long and dim corridor.

Once at the end of the hall and his office furnished with the castoffs of university workers long gone, Harold put down his weekend’s work and placed the letters onto last week’s tidy but untouched pile. He clicked on his computer and quickly typed instructions. The screen blossomed with a colorful bar graph and half a dozen columns of numbers. A man’s head poked into the doorway. It was oddly shaped, a little like a fat peanut, but was not unappealing. The smile was a simple, happy one.

“Good morning, Doctor. How many this time?”

Harold didn’t respond, but continued studying the data on the screen. He tapped on the computer keys, stopped to observe the changes on the screen, and tapped on a few more. Then he answered, “Twenty, James. Twenty should have expired by now,” and turned to look up at his friend.

“Ah. That’s good,” Jim said, now standing in full view. By appearance he was a scientist: pudgy, a white lab coat, pocket protectors crammed with pens and pencils, and a general presentation of disarray. “You’re keeping the numbers steady. It was twenty last week, and the week before and before that too if I remember correctly. Are you still free at lunch?”

Harold turned and checked his calendar book that was laying on the desk, fully aware that tennis was written down. He carefully confirmed anyway. “Yes,” he answered. “You will receive your usual sound thrashing at noon.”

“Ta, ta.” Jim was gone by the time Harold waved him away. Back at the screen, Harold analyzed the procedures and the predictable results of the last two weeks. The current M-24 series had condemned twenty adolescent rats to die of fast-growing cancers within eight weeks of the first set of injections. Harold drummed his fingers on the keys as he studied the rows of numbers, mentally recreating each rat’s cellular and organ damage. Each column represented one variation of the experiment while the rows listed the individual lab animal. Scanning from left to right he identified the procedure for individual rats and imagined how each one had succumbed. It didn’t please him to kill the animals, he hadn’t figured out how not to yet.

With a sigh, he rose from his desk and headed toward what the students called the rat house. His task that morning was to collect the bodies. Normally one of his assistants would gather up the dead and prepare them for necropsy. He shook his head in disbelief. In a moment of weakness, he had allowed both postgraduate students and his one undergraduate to attend the same daylong conference. “Be here all the earlier the next morning then,” he had told them in his best Ebenezer Scrooge imitation.

The pungency of the rat house made him pause. The tight space and odors discomforted visitors, especially against the background of the incessant squeaking and scrabbling of hundreds of rats. From the entryway, all he saw were the ends of the tall rows of sheet metal racks that held the wire cages and at the far wall, tight against it, an innocent looking ten-gallon black metal bucket with a locking lid. This was the vacuum chamber where the animals of other studies were sacrificed. None of his rats ever lived long enough to see the inside of the chamber.

After winding around and between the series of seven-foot high blue steel frames, Harold arrived at the five rows that were his part of the rat house. Each row held twenty cages, four columns of five cages across. The cages were wireframes with a small flat area of sheet steel for a little wood chip nest, with a small plastic food dish and water bottle attached through the side wire mesh. Harold moved to a row with the number M-24 marked in black grease pencil on the vertical support, the current crop of animals completing the M-24 series. A glance confirmed the seven that remained from the original twenty were dead. He recalled when F-22-a was still alive one Monday morning, raising everyone’s hopes, only to die in Harold’s hands a little more than an hour later.

Harold slid the first cage out to lift the body into the plastic bag. At that moment, M-24-c wrinkled his pink nose and twitch his hairless tail at the scent of the intruder, then ran about, nothing like the near comatose survivor F-22-a had been.

“Well, well. What have we here?” Harold said aloud, watching the rat scurry around the cage. He lifted it out. A smile formed then evaporated. His eyes narrowed. Someone had made a mistake. An experimental rat shouldn’t be this active. One of the students missed a procedure and ruined the animal. Harold changed his mind. It was his mistake. It should have been impossible for M-24-c to slip through the set of procedures and remain healthy. He pulled out a notebook from his shirt pocket and noted to check all the experimental logs.

Harold placed M-24-c back in his cage and slid the latch closed, then went down the rows picking up the remains of the others, placing each stiff body in a separate plastic bag, and took them to the lab. This was his universe, designed by him to exacting standards. It was square, ten feet on a side, with the door cut into one corner. This allowed four workstations on the black plasticine counters that lined each wall. Each counter held a small microscope and dissecting equipment neatly in the center of each station. Taped on the otherwise bare plaster walls were the one or two personal pictures and notes Harold allowed. All shared the one refrigerator/freezer and the DNA analysis center.

Harold spent the morning with his eyes pressed to the microscope, looking for signs of extra chromosomes in cells going through the cell division process. Harold leaned back and stretched his arms over his head. The students would do the rest. Once back in his office, he pulled off his red sweater, yellow shirt and tan slacks and climbed into his tennis gear. Staff could always tell if the professor or his wife reached his closet first that morning. They knew him as a genius, obsessed with his research and unmindful of most other things. If Shelly was away, he was likely to arrive at the lab wearing the same clothes three or four days in a row and just as likely to work through all those nights.

Harold saw himself as your run of the mill medical researcher, certainly no peacock or prima donna. He was just under average height at five feet seven inches, a little underweight at 141 pounds, a little nearsighted, a bit nonconformist, significantly compulsive, and obsessively logical.

After folding his clothes and stacking them on his desk chair, he pulled on last year’s birthday gift from Shelly, a deep blue tennis warm-up suit, which she said brought out the color of his eyes. He picked up his racket and a new can of tennis balls from the wooden box next to his desk and jogged out the door.

The tennis court was built in the early twenties by the family that owned the manor and surrounding land. The university had no reason to tear it down and just enough sense of responsibility to maintain it. A small brick changing room abutted the stone back wall of the main building. Since the small shower room was also left untouched during the conversion, the researchers had what amounted to a free private tennis club.

Jim was already on the court when Harold arrived exactly at noon. He would never admit it, but Jim was always early to their game to warm up by stretching and running in place. He was five years older than Harold, hitting the big “4-0” this year, and nearly phobic about his receding hairline and expanding paunch. Sometimes he would pause between games, hold his fingers to his throat, and count off seconds on his digital watch. Harold, in contrast, cared nothing about fitness and never warmed up. Tennis was a twice-weekly habit insisted upon by Jim, and encouraged by Shelly. Harold played only because it helped unclutter his mind and made his afternoons more productive.

The new can of balls hissed as Harold pulled on the aluminum tab. “So, “Jim casually asked, “what was the actual body count this morning?” Harold’s friend was well aware that not everyone in the scientific community agreed with his experiments. Researchers at Scripps Institute in La Jolla and the Harvard labs, and even the three groups conducting DNA work in London and Edinburgh felt that this displaced American researcher in a remote seaside Scottish town had jumped too far ahead and away from the mainstream. Through critical journal articles and heated debates at conferences, they contended that science would be better served by more study of simple organisms or more conventional cloning experiments. These critics compared his work to the scientific circus during the 1980’s that surrounded the so-called discovery of cold fusion. Harold constantly defended his work on paper and in person.

“Strange you should ask that question for the millionth time. Six more dead. One survived. I think because of a mix-up. But,” he shrugged his shoulders, “you never can tell.”

“Did you run any tests?”

Both were now ready to play, going through the ritual of banging a hand against the strings to test the tension. “Not yet. I was saving the preliminary testing for this afternoon. All I need is a quick check of the cells and then examine the treatment log. Unless there was a deliberate attempt to cover something up, I’ll find the error.”

Instead of walking to his side of the court, Jim paused and looked at his friend, his voice rising with hope. “Hal, do you think this is the long-awaited breakthrough or just one tough rat?”

“Neither,” Harold answered, his back to Jim while walking toward his own baseline. “Someone made a mistake. I’ll find the mistake, doom another thousand rats, and make life miserable for one very careless lab assistant.”

“You realize, Hal,” added Jim, hitting to Harold with a jerky slap at the ball, “you can make some extra money by employing your techniques on the pests in town. Maybe call yourself The Doctor Death Exterminating Company, Ltd., or should that be unlimited?”

“Thanks for the idea,” he said, popping the ball back over the net with a moderately adept push with his forehand. “You serve first so you can lose by the ignominious score of 1-6.”

“Not hardly. First serve in counts.”

“First return in counts, you mean.”

Showered and back in the office by one, Harold was hesitant to collect M-24-c. It would be a scientific blockbuster to produce an animal with double DNA that survived even for a little while. The best that could be said for his efforts so far was that he had injected foreign DNA into an otherwise healthy animal and caused it to die within a few weeks.

If that Mark didn’t follow procedures, he thought, I’ll fire him. As Harold walked into the rat house, he considered the other possibility, that M-24-c had died during the morning. Some biological fluke had kept him alive an extra twelve hours. But no. M-24-c was moving about his cage oblivious to everything but his nest of wood chips.

Harold pulled the cage out from the frame and gently lifted M-24-c. He needed to take a few cell samples to confirm that DNA had been implanted, and then check the log. Harold was sure the rat either wasn’t injected with DNA or missed one or more of the growth hormone stews necessary to synchronize host and injected DNA development. He expected the error to show up in the experimental log, one of the three logbooks of his up until now fail-safe system.

After aspirating cell samples from five different sites, Harold returned to his office to examine his personal backup log for mistakes. His eyes scanned the record. In just a few minutes, his log verified that M-24-c had, indeed, missed one treatment. He impassively noted the date and the error on his yellow notepad. M-24-c was healthy because it had slipped through the experimental procedure, not that it was anything special.

Harold returned to his lab to prepare M-24-c’s samples for a rough, preliminary analysis on the electron microscope where the image of chromosomes would show up on the computer screen. Harold mentally predicted that M-24-c had one set, the set he was born with. He performed all of the preliminary work before taking the five random cell samples to the central lab where he had reserved time on the electron microscope. He was glad the room was deserted when he arrived. His colleagues were supportive. But he didn’t need any more sympathetic pats on the back. After initial set-up, it took about ten minutes to adjust the instrument. Harold sat on the chair in front of the machine and flicked on the screen.

“Oh my.” There they were, a jumble of pieces of what looked like bits of rubber bands. But too many. Harold sat passively viewing the image, but his pulse quickened. There were far too many pieces. His eyes scanned the screen. Possibly, just possibly, M-24-c meant something and he was looking at the future of medicine. He didn’t dare get too excited. The DNA was there, but he needed to find out if the DNA was growing, becoming part of cell division. Then he would have something.

If his method worked, the animal would have twice the normal amount of genetic material. Individual cells could and might divide using the healthiest genetic material from what was available. Other scientists were attempting to identify individual genes among millions, like looking for a tiny needle in a large haystack. His idea was to give the cell the entire haystack and let Mother Nature decide what to do.

If he could perfect his technique, never again would a helpless couple sit in a darkened hospital room and watch their child slip away, dying of a disease transmitted through them. Later, genes from other species could be added. Maybe injecting the genes from a salamander would replace lost human legs and arms, or those of a fly grow new human eyes. Corn and wheat would be made as hardy as crabgrass and able to flourish from cold mountaintops to tropical rain forests. Tomatoes might grow as big as watermelons, Highland Salmon the size of whales.

“Hey. Where are you?” The voice jolted him back. Turning, he saw Jim’s head in the doorway.

“Don’t you ever walk into a room without first sticking your head in?”

The head disappeared, replaced by a large shoe and pulled up pant leg exposing a short black sock and a fish white calf. “Yes,” he said, jumping into the doorframe, “but most people prefer just the head.” Jim entered and peered at the screen. “What have you there?”

“Not sure. It’ll take a week or so to have a clear idea. What can I do for you?”

“Pauline wanted me to remind you at tennis about the class tonight.”

“And you forgot to tell me when we played and she called you to remind you to remind me.”

“Right. I think.”

Harold held up his left hand and mimed turning the pages of his date book with his right. He pointed out the entry in his invisible book. “The dance class is written right here in black and white. Pauline should know I would remember.”

“She said you would say that, Mr. Know Everything and Write Everything Down. She told me to remind you for my benefit, not yours.”

“How’s that again?”

Jim sighed. “I‘m not sure what she means. But she keeps telling me that reminding you is good for me.” He sat down and made himself comfortable, not an easy task in this functional part of the lab. The room was like a spaceship crammed with a random assemblage of computers, monitors, amplifiers and crisscrossed with strands of wires of all colors and sizes. Three ancient metal card table chairs, their fabric covers torn and faded, were the only seats. “But now you are reminded, Hal my good man, tell me, how do you feel about this dancing business?”

“Jim, how long have you known me?”

“A long time.”

“I would think you would be aware of my feelings about dancing and everything equally inane.”

“Well, I want to talk about it. Let me bribe you with some coffee.”

Within five minutes, the sterile white-walled room had become a lounge. Both men sat tilted back on their chairs with feet braced in the nooks and crannies of a half a million dollars’ worth of electronics scattered on the metal table. The aroma of fresh coffee from the machine around the corner filled the air.

“Hal, this class is daft. Tell me again why we agreed to do it.”

“You agreed because you always agree. I agreed because Shelly insists I do something outside the lab every once in a while and this was one of the least intrusive. Placating one’s life partner is often a necessary evil.”

Jim persisted. “Hal, you don’t want to shake your bottom in public any more than the man in the moon. You’ve never glided in your life. ‘If it’s not measurable, it’s ignorable,’ is your motto. I’ve heard it a hundred times. Do you want to learn to dance? Just for you, I mean, not doing it for Shelly. Like for a change of pace or something.”

“Of course not. Why would any man worth his kilt want to do such a thing?”

“Brilliant. Exactly the answer I was looking for.” Jim banged his chair on the floor learned forward, and whispered, “So Mr. Brilliant, how are we going to get out of this? I’m tone deaf, have no rhythm what’s so ever, even you have more coordination…”

“…and your shoes will squeak,” finished Harold.

“Yes.” Jim agreed looking at his feet, moving them in opposing circles, “And they’re too big for me to control too. What should we do?”

“I already have the perfect solution. It’s a five-week course. We’ll do the five weeks and then I’ll suggest that the four of us take uphill walking.”

“Oh, fine,” Jim leaned back in mock disgust. “With dancing a missed step means I squish Pauline’s foot. You want me to fall a thousand feet to my death. Fine. Fine. If that’s what you think of me.” Jim got up. “Just make sure you don’t enjoy dancing enough to say we all should sign up for another five-week’s tuition.”

“Have no fear, old boy. See you tonight.” Jim left. Harold stayed for a while with his feet up on the table, his thoughts returned to M-24-c and his father dead so young and his brother dead not long after. Shelly wanted a child. He didn’t want a child yet. No more death he thought. Not that way. He must keep his promise to all of them.