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"I've got to find a way."
Several months before the students disbanded for Christmas, Dr. Swindell posted something on the university's notice board. Matthew peered over the others to see what was written there. He recognised the professor's scrawl. Dr. Swindel was seeking a volunteer to assist him in his research for solving plastic waste. Matthew felt confident. He'd already done odd jobs for the professor; the professor's work for ‘The Natural World’, which he did outside term time.
Matthew bit his lip. Would he give it a go?
Passing the staff room, he overheard a discussion. He'd been singled out due to his unrivalled attention to detail. He smiled at this. His work for this society during the university holidays had paid off. At the beginning, he'd thought it stupid doing menial tasks like pressing the correct buttons on a keyboard, or spotting an unrecognisable image on the screen, but he'd been wrong about that. Luck was on his side. But what about his debt? The bank manager would be a difficult man to convince. Matthew grew weary thinking about it, and kept flicking his fringe. Mr. Carter's words kept echoing in his head like a persistant head-ache- 'You must pay us back soon.'
At the research center, Mathew noticed Dr Swindell glancing through the open window, mumbling to himself. As it was an unusually warm November day, it had been left open. The breeze ruffled the curtains and scraps of paper gathered at the entrance to the disused power station opposite. In the mean time, Matthew on the other side of the office, was rummaged through stacks of paper.
Matthew thought he'd soon be able to repay his six months’ rent arrears; his accumulating electricity and water bills. He'd had to forgo the heating. Summer was fine but it was winter now. Wrapping his late grandmother's shawl around his shoulders was bearable in October, but it was November now- so much colder. If all went well- this would all change.
At the bureau's window, he fondled the plastic leaf of a potted fern. Doing that was safer than touching anything else. The other wilting potted plants further along, looked too fragile- he didn’t want to add to his troubles. Although clever, he knew people mocked him for his clumsiness.
Where were his glasses? He'd already gone through several stacks of paper on that desk over there. Maybe they'e buried in a different pile, but which one? He passed a hand over the surface of several more as he moved towards the professor. "Where are they?" Hearing his boss’s shouts of misery made him look up.
“It’s a catastrophe!” cried out the Professor putting hands to his balding grey head of hair. “It’s much worse than I thought.”
“Come and see for yourself.”
Matthew zig-zagged several desks and chairs before reaching him. The professor looked back at the computer. “What’s on the screen is as bad as what’s in the sky outside.”
“Let me see.” The student hurried to look more closely, but part of his thoughts were still on his own financial situation. He was sure the bank manager wouldn't accept a student’s hypothetical promise of a promotion. For that, he'd need written proof. The professor’s words distracted him.
“You can see for yourself," pointing at the screen. "The Pacific is plagued with floating seals and there," fixing his index-finger at one spot,"there... bloated sharks and tortoises are all floating about. And look over there-,” moving his hand to another section. "What about those black blobs bobbing up and down in the water. Those are swollen turtles. All of them and many more dead creatures are drifting around in this section of the sea. It’s awful.”
“You always get sea creatures floating about in the water. The Pacific is just-” Matthew turned away from the screen; his eyes focused on a small pile of paper he'd overlooked on the table close to his boss’s computer. He began to move towards it, but the professor’s words made him halt.
“Not in such numbers.“ Dr. Swindell continued staring at the screen. “What can we do about it?”
Half-listening, the student hurried to fetch his bifocals. At last he’d found what he’d been looking for and let out a quiet ‘Hooray’ as he put them on. He hastend back to his boss, but lessened his pace when he saw the expression on Dr Swindell’s face. What appeared on his boss's face became clearer as he approached. The professor’s eyebrows were more furrowed than usual, and the constant twiddling of his thumbs unnerved him.
“I’m convinced it’s as a result of the excess of plastics in our seas. It's said that fishermen are always dredging up strange looking fish. Some of the creatures are huge with no eyes....Others are so pale you’d think they were the ghosts of the sea. We have to put a stop to this, but how?”
“Those could make interesting ‘fish and chips’,” quipped Matthew but when his boss's face grew more serious, he realized his mistake.
“How revolting! This isn’t funny Matthew. We’re not in the university common room now where you can exchange jokes. You’re at the center for environmental studies and we’re dealing with serious matters here. This is worrying.”
At first, Matthew said nothing, then ventured, “Sorry sir, I wasn’t thinking.” How stupid! He could forget about that extra money he was hoping to tie him over for the next few months.
Matthew looked away.
Dr. Swindell shook his head, moved back to his own desk behind the computer and slumped down in his chair. After a while he raised his head. “I'm perfectly aware that you've got other things on your mind right now Matthew, but I'd expected more from you.”
He lowered his head, contemplating the floor. He doubted he'd become his permanent assistant now. Then an idea came to him. “Sir. It’s not as serious as we think.”
Dr Swindell examined his assistant carefully. “I hope this isn’t yet another of your jokes.”
Mathew flinched. “I promiss you, it’s not, sir.”
The professor eyed him carefully.
The student extracted a crumpled piece of paper from his back trouser pocket. “I tore this article out from a magazine as it looked interesting. This could be the solution to our problems.”
His boss’s eyes widened then he leaned against the back of his chair. Crossing his hands, he looked at him. “I’m listening, Matt. How did you know we might come across this kind of problem?”
“I didn’t. It’s just that this particular article caught my eye.”
“I was right to choose you from all the other candidates,” giving him a big smile. “I knew you’d come up with something. What is it, Matt?”
Mathew felt more comfortable - his boss was now addressing him with the more familiar term of ‘Matt’. The young man thought he'd overstepped the mark, but now it looked like all had been forgiven and forgotten. It surprised and pleased him that Dr. Swindell’s mood had altered so rapidly. The student flattened out the creased piece of paper and pointed at it. “This talks about a kind of coral that likes the taste of plastic and-” The professor put a hand out to pick it up, but Matthew placed a hand over it. “Apparently, this particular type of coral digests the plastic and spews it out into the ocean as water.”
The professor readjusted his own glasses and looked at Matthew more closely. “This is unbelievable. Coral? I can't believe it. Where or rather which magazine did you get this article from? I’ve never heard of this before or read about it anywhere. I really hope this isn't a hoax. Is it?”
“I promiss you sir, it's not.” Matthew looked away hiding his fear. He’d not double checked his source, but he was confident 'The Environment Journal' was a reliable mine of information. “The Environmental Journal” he answered.
“That’s a fine magazine. I’d be surprised they got things wrong there, especially with all the research they do, but...” The professor let out a sigh and made for the dispensing machine at the other end of the room. Once there, he turned around and looked back. “D'you want something to drink? Coffee or Tea?”
Matthew shook his head. He wasn’t thirsty. Watching the professor’s muttering to himself worried him. It suddenly dawned on him that the information was not only was it old news but also the coral was rare; it was virtually impossible to find. To hide his embarassment, he pretended to look for something, fumbling through various piles of paper on a desk, opening and closing drawers at random. Certainly Doctor Swindell would find out, and no doubt he’d be saying ‘bye-bye’ to his future pay-rise.
All smiles, the professor returned with his coffee and placed the cup next to his own computer.
Matthew just stared at him. He'd only managed to fit one half of the article in his trouser pocket. The other half was at the flat. He started to fiddle with the rim of his own glasses.
The professor smoothed the few remaining hairs on his balding head and put a hand on his assistant’s shoulder. He gave a start but Dr Swindell smiled. “I know it’s old news but I’m sure it’s still valid. It could be that with this plastic eating coral, all is not lost.” Excited, the professor rubbed his hands together. “What you’ve just told me is good news. Nevertheless I still have to look at it more carefully. Whether it’s possible or not, we still have a lot of work to do and…” Dr. Swindell stopped and stared at the young man shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “What is it Matt?”
Taking in a deep breath, Matthew began, “I know all about these trawlers ploughing through those cluttered waters … scooping up strange looking creatures from the deep. I bet it's awful for fishermen to catch all these odd looking creatures. They never know what will be stuck to the propellers or in their nets.” At times he looked at his boss, then at the floor. Finally, the student took in another breath. “But there’s another problem.”
Dr. Swindell passed a hand over another bald patch of his head. “I thought you were helping me solve problems with plastic not creating new ones,” he teased. His mocking tone soon changed when he saw Matthew frowning. “I’m glad you volunteered to assist me Matt as I have great hopes for you in the future. You’ll go far.” His eyes narrowed and added concerned,“What’s the matter?”
“The thing is sir... once the plastic has been extracted from the water, it's replaced by salt....a-”
Dr Swindell cut in him, confused. “So the water is still harmful, right?” Matthew nodded. “So what you said earlier on wasn’t true then.”
“No..Yes...No, no... You misubnderstood me, sir, “protested the young man. “The coral does absorb the plastic and converts it into salt... but it’s a special kind of salt.”
The professor took off his glasses.“What do you mean?”
“The problem is that this new kind of salt is so fine it’s difficult to collect.” Matthew feared that the professor would think him a liar, but he was surprised by his boss’s response.
Dr Swindell cast his eyes around the room then fixed them on his assistant again. He began to chuckle.
“It’s not as serious as you think. It only means we have to do a lot more work to find a cheaper way. I doubt I’ll be able to have much of a break this Christmas before term starts again.”
“I didn’t realize there was a deadline, sir.”
“There isn’t one really. It’s just that ‘The Natural World’ wants a proposal as soon as possible. The sooner the better. As I’m rather tied up during term time. I need to get it in before the start of next term... in early February. You see my problem?”
Mathew nodded. Dr Swindell began pacing between some of the tables and chairs. Eventually he returned and stood in front of him. "I'll go to the board next week. I’ll be recommending you to be my permanent assistant from now on.”
“That’s great!” All of a sudden, Matthew considered his prospect in the next few weeks. Would the landlord let him stay in the flat for the next few months, or would he have to move out by the first of January? Hiding his apprehension, he placed a hand on the desk and cleared his throat. “Why don’t you go and enjoy Christmas with your family, Sir. Whilst you're away I could do some research here. If I have to, I’ll stay in the building.”
“Absolutely not. The place is locked up the week before Christmas until the 2nd of January. We’ll do as much as we can until the 15th of December. They’ll be closing this place up on the 17th. In any case, you deserved a break too. Won’t your family be expecting you?”
“Of course I’ll be spending Christmas with them, but they’ll understand I can’t come to them straight after term ends when I tell them of the important task we're doing.”
“Well that’s up to you.”
Matthew hesitant. He looked down at the linoleum floor again, then raised his head. “One big favor sir…”
“Shoot. I’m encouraged by your idea. Glad to help you in any way I can.”
Relieved, he gave Dr Swindell a broad smile. “Would you consider advancing me 500 pounds, Sir?”
The professor’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s a lot of money! I don’t carry that amount of cash with me, but there might be some in the safe.” Matthew noticed the professor widening his jaw. “I'd help if I could, but I’m afraid I don’t know the code to the safe here.”
But Mathew had. It was when the secretary opening it during one of the weekends he’d been there. Having forgotten to put important papers into the safe the day before, she returned the next day- a Saturday- to correct her mistake. Whilst placing the documents in the safe, he’d not only noticed a large stack of banknotes there. All innocent, the young man looked at the professor.
Dr. Swindell leaned forward from his seat.“Mrs. Taylor is the only one who has it." He took out a handkerchief from his pocket." She...she won’t be back till next term. Sorry.” He rose from his desk and made for the coat rack, then turned.
Matthew thought about his next move, and played with his shirt buttons. Dr. Swindell’s words distracted him.
“I’ll be off now, and I’ll let you carry on with the research. Remember to lock up and drop the key it in the box downstairs when you’ve finished Matt. Do as much as you can. See you in a couple of days.” With those words, Dr. Swindell closed the door and left.
As soon as he no longer heard the professor whistling in the corridor, Matthew raced to the safe. He remembered the combination and was relieved to see a pile of bank notes there. He selected five hundred pounds from the heap. It was obvious the pile of money was much lower than before, but he was confident it wouldn’t remain like that for long. He'd be replacing it soon, or at least some of it- no one would know. At last he'd be able to reimburse part of what he owed the bank. Surely now Mr. Carter would start believing in him. The snag was - he couldn’t remember if he’d closed the safe door correctly.
Matthew wrapped his grey woolen scarf around his neck as he climbed the frosen coated steps to the station platform. His grandmother had knitted this wrap for him a few months before she died. It warmed his heart remembering her words - 'You'll need this more than me. It's much colder up north.' He only wished the blanket would have bank notes hidden inside, but there were none. 'A ridiculous idea,' Mathew chided himself as he knew that every member of the family was poor. Nevertheless he wasn't going to let his dilemna spoil Christmas. It should be fun. Members of the family would be there. With those thoughts he climbed into the train and made for home.
Without telling what he'd done before the festive season, he explained his financial problems to the family.
"I wish I could help you more son, but I've just been made redundant."
The young man jerked his head up. "What!?! Why? You've been with this electricty firm since it started. Surely someone could use your expertise."
"I know, I know, but that's not going to happen." He cast his eyes down. Then he raised his head and passed a hand over his grey hair. "I'll let you have £100 from my savings. It won't cover what you need to repay the bank but-"
"Thanks Dad, "Matthew said."That's generous. I know you've got lots of bills to pay. It'll be even worse for you now you've been made redundant. Are you sure Dad?"
"You're the future, Matthew. I'm the past. Technology has moved on and my skills are no longer needed."
"I promise, I'll pay you back."
But could he? In panic, he avoided eye contact with anyone. He could tell them that Dr. Swindell wanted him to be his assistant in the near future and that meant he would earn more money. Smiling to himself, he opened his mouth, but felt a nudge. Turning he saw his fat aunt extract £75 from her bag and handing it over to him. Before he had a chance to say anything else, a cousin offered him a further £50 note.
"Thanks a lot all of you."
"That's what families are for," said his cousin. It surprised Matthew that Simon had deigned to help him. He always thought the two of them were rivals. All will be a different story once he'd become an assisstant to Dr. Swindell.
Everyones donations weren't quite the amount he’d taken. Not to worry, he’d be able to repay some.
Humming to himself, the young man made his way to the center a few days after Christmas. He stopped short at the corner of the building. A police car was parked outside its entrance and Doctor Swindell was talking to an officer.
*!%&*? $£!* Matthew walked away still swearing.“I doubt Dr Swindell will want to hear my idea about how to eliminate those fish balloons now.”