A short story by Moshe Sipper
Janet Cohen could tell the outcome as soon as she saw Dr. Barnaby Finch walk out the door. His ashen face spoke louder than words.
“They rejected it, right?” she asked tremulously.
“I’m so very sorry, Janet,” replied Dr. Finch in a broken voice. “I … It’s … If only —”
Janet interjected softly, trying to put on a brave face. “Barnaby, it’s not your fault. We knew it was risky.” But then her composure dissipated like grains of sand in the wind and the tears started rolling out in a trickle that soon became a torrent.
Dr. Finch wanted more than anything to hug her tightly and murmur reassuring words in her ear. But he was Janet’s thesis adviser and they were standing out in the corridor, just outside the Ph.D. committee’s door, with all those stuffed shirts soon to pour out.
So all he did was motion his lachrymose student gently to follow him, as he led her back to the lab, which they were relieved to find empty.
Empty of humans, that is. Being a primatology lab there were, of course, several primates in attendance. As they entered, Dr. Finch felt something nagging at the back of his mind, until it finally hit him after a moment: silence. The lab, usually full of ruckus made by the chimps, orangutans, and all the other merrily caged animals, was eerily silent, as if they sensed the sadness of the moment.
Dr. Finch placed his hand on Janet’s shoulder. “They … They said the thesis was interesting but … somewhat … unsubstantiated.”
A tiny smile appeared on Janet’s pretty face. “Unsubstantiated? I bet Professor Higgledy-Smythes said it was crap.”
Dr. Finch smiled too. “Well, being English, the term he used was actually ‘bollocks’.”
At that they both burst into much-needed laughter, which also ended the silence in the lab as the apes joined in with shrieks of their own. Only Mr. Nuttles, the chimp who was Janet’s favorite, quietly eyed the whole scene. Standing beside his cage Janet now felt much better.
The smile on Dr. Finch’s face faded. “As we expected their main claim was that your analysis of the dating data was incorrect.”
“Pompous idiots,” said Janet in a fiery tone. “The dating is perfect. And I’m right. I know it in my mind and in my heart: I am right!” She pointed to the epitomic cartoon hanging on the lab wall showing the evolution of humans: the ancestral, hunched-down ape to the left, followed by Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and finally Homo sapiens to the right.
Janet banged loudly on Dr. Finch’s desk and repeated her thesis mantra: “Right to left”.
Dr. Finch said nothing, being, ipso facto, intimately familiar with Janet’s thesis. She had come to him four years earlier after reading a paper on some recent findings by Kenyan primatologists suggesting that humans had come upon the evolutionary scene before apes. The findings were pooh-poohed by the establishment as nothing more than bad science. But Janet was sufficiently intrigued to dig deeper. Dr. Finch recalled now how he’d warned her against picking such a thorny, contentious, perhaps even inflammatory topic for her thesis. But Janet was, self-admittedly, “pigheaded to a fault”, and she’d hammered Dr. Finch until he’d relented, agreeing to be her adviser on this risky venture.
She was eager, tireless, and highly motivated. Within a month she’d flown off to Kenya, to meet the authors of the controversial paper in question. Thence, she’d remained on the African continent for most of the past four years, only making short hops back to the university, to discuss her findings with Dr. Finch. She’d been to Ethiopia, Nigeria, Congo, Gabon, Angola, and Namibia, the latter trip almost proving fatal as she’d been captured by a gang of outlaws. She’d only managed to negotiate her release when it had turned out the head of the gang was an enthusiastic primatologist. Indeed, he’d led her to some interesting fossils, which had later proved pivotal to her thesis.
“Right to left,” repeated Janet, referring to her crowning conclusion: the evolution of man actually occurred in the opposite direction: from Homo sapiens to ape.
“So what now?” sighed Dr. Finch, as he grabbed a chair and dropped onto it dejectedly.
“Don’t worry about it, Barnaby,” said Janet optimistically. She’d always had a knack for bouncing back quickly from even the direst setback. “I’ve got some great offers in Africa. And you know how I’ve come to love that place.”
Dr. Finch smiled sadly, realizing he’d miss her terribly. Even though she’d spent little time in the lab her spirit seemed to dominate the place. And whenever she was back the apes would lavish so much attention on her it was almost eerie.
“Janet…” he started softly.
“It’s OK, Barnaby, really,” said the young woman.
“No, this has to be said,” Dr. Finch declared firmly. “You bewitched me into letting you run wild with your thesis, and I for one believe your data is one hundred percent valid. But I’m still your adviser and as such I should have steered you into other directions.” He paused for a moment and rubbed his chin. “Directions that would have ended in a Ph.D.”
“Bollocks,” said Janet, and again the two burst into laughter. “Seriously,” she continued, “I don’t give a damn about the degree any more. Frankly, I don’t need it, either.”
“That’s my girl,” came a gruff voice from the cage next to Janet.
After a moment of stunned silence the young woman finally managed to murmur, “Mr … Nuttles?”
“Actually, it’s Doctor Nuttles,” said the chimp, grinning widely. “I rather dazzled my Ph.D. committee.”
Copyright © 2012 by Moshe Sipper