Read A Beautiful Young Wife Online

Authors: Tommy Wieringa

Tags: #FIC000000, #FIC019000

A Beautiful Young Wife (3 page)

‘I'm sorry, love, that you had to hear about it this way,' she said from behind him.

Behind the church was a gravedigger's hut. The door was open, so he ducked down and looked inside. In the semi-darkness he made out a few pallbearer's poles and partitions they used to shore up the walls of the graves. He pulled Ruth inside and pushed her up against the wall; his hands disappeared under her sweater and grasped her little breasts. Gooseflesh. They did it standing against the wall; she breathed heavily against his neck. He fucked her hard and punishingly. With his ejaculation, he vanquished the man with the cowboy boots, and the father, too, and carried her away from there. The bull with the girl on its back.

*

When Edward Landauer was seventeen and had to decide what he was going to study, he saw two possibilities. He could either peer into the cosmos through a telescope, in search of new life, of moons and meteorites with grit in their tails, or he could bend over microscopes to study the fundaments of human life. In a youth hostel in Copenhagen, he read
Thus Spoke Zarathustra
, and found the answer in Nietzsche's impassioned summons to remain faithful to the earth.

In those days, medical microbiology was a fairly ho-hum field. The smallpox virus had been eliminated, tuberculosis no longer played a significant role in the Western world, and the polio vaccine was almost 100 per cent effective. The battle seemed over. What was left now were the residual illnesses, viruses and bacteria still rampant in the Third World, and Edward was prepared to dedicate his research life to those.

Then, in 1981, a man in Amsterdam died from a mysterious stack of nasty diseases. ‘Patient Zero' was a strong, healthy man who had been destroyed in a trice by a muddle of immune sicknesses. Almost every specialist in the hospital was at his bedside, but they were powerless to help him.

In January 1983, three more patients were admitted with the same symptoms; a few months later, seven more. Before the year was over, most of them had died. Their immune systems were out of whack; opportunistic infections had destroyed their bodies. They served as staging grounds for a proliferation of viruses and fungi, of aggressive skin cancers and neurological ailments affecting the brain and spinal cord. They went blind and senile, and drowned in their own fluids. No one knew what kind of disease this was or where it had come from. The only apparent correlative was that it seemed to strike mostly homosexual men, men with an often highly promiscuous sex life — some of the respondents reported having hundreds of sex partners each year.

Edward heard someone in the hospital refer to it as ‘homo-cancer', but it soon became clear that haemophilia patients, drug addicts, and recipients of blood transfusions were also susceptible. The disease took on a name, ‘Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome', otherwise known as
AIDS
.

Edward was twenty-five, his thesis written in the company of those researching the new disease. That was how he came to be given an internship with virology professor Herman Wigboldus. Wigboldus, the story was legendary, had brought the isolated
AIDS
virus back from America in his breast pocket. As if by magic, he had transformed the sleepy field of medical microbiology into the frontline of modern science, and Edward, by a stroke of good luck, was right in the thick of it. There was money, prestige, and fame to be had. That was the glorious side of it: the epoch-making research, the thrill of the new, the pioneering work. People called them the cowboys of
AIDS
research.

The other end of the spectrum was marked by fear and despair. There were surgeons who, fearing infection, refused to operate on homosexual males. No one knew how the virus spread. Anything was possible: airborne contact, sexual contact, or even the toilet seat. One female lab assistant quickly developed an acute form of nosophobia and panicked at the pipettes containing virus material. Wigboldus, when he came into the lab, would sometimes roar ‘Virus!,' and everyone would laugh as she froze on her stool. She finished her internship at the veterinary faculty of the University of Utrecht.

Edward lived in a whirl of excitement. Patients were dying en masse; scientific research was being carried out with warlike urgency. Laboratory staffers organised information evenings in meeting rooms filled with terrified homosexual men. ‘Dr. Landauer, my partner is
HIV
positive, and so am I. Should we be using condoms?'

Questions to which there were no answers.

During a departmental meeting, Wigboldus told them: ‘It looks like we're going to have to say sorry to the entire first and second generations.'

The lab assistants were silent. ‘What do you mean, “sorry”?' one of the researchers asked at last.

‘Just that,' Wigboldus said. ‘They're all doomed.'

One autumn day, Edward was in the canteen, watching an anti-nuclear march in The Hague on the little TV there. As hordes of people shuffled past, the reporter said it could very well develop into the largest protest demonstration ever held in the Netherlands.

A man came up and stood beside Edward. For a while, the two of them watched the live broadcast from Malieveld. ‘The fools,' the man said then. ‘What they don't realise is that viruses are what's going to kill them, not atom bombs.'

Under Wigboldus' forceful leadership, some seven interns and post-docs were kneaded into serviceable material. They published in
Nature
,
Science
, and
The Lancet
: the flow of research funding was endless. Edward went along to conferences, and learned from Wigboldus about who hated whom, and with whom he would do well to forge coalitions. ‘You need to understand the way the game is played,' Wigboldus said. ‘That, combined with brilliant research — and we'll pipette us together a Nobel Prize yet, my boy.'

He sounded like a used-car salesman, Edward thought, yet he understood that Wigboldus' pugnacity and lack of scruples were the building blocks of his success.

‘Science is the destruction of reputations,' his mentor told him one evening in a hotel bar. ‘Creative destruction. Scuttling other people's careers when your study knocks theirs for a loop.' The glee in his voice was unmissable.

It was within this culture of dedicated pioneering and power lust that Edward was formed. Wigboldus' hunkering for glory was fused seamlessly to the public interest; Edward had seen him profess great commitment to his patients while, once beyond range of the cameras, he granted much higher priority to cutting the National Institutes of Health or the Institut Pasteur off at the pass.

Wigboldus' authoritarian behaviour didn't intimidate Edward. He knew the man valued him for his scientific intuition. In addition, Edward possessed a gift for clearly and simply explaining the state of affairs in their field of research, so that Wigboldus could leave most of the media contacts to him. And because the dynamic field surrounding the new retrovirus also included an element of hysteria, there was something to explain or comment on each week.

Wigboldus lived with his wife and two dogs in a villa at the edge of Amstelveen. When Edward was invited over for dinner one time and crossed the lawn on his way to the front door, Wigboldus asked him to wipe his feet on the grass. ‘That keeps some of the filth of the city outside.'

For an internationally celebrated virologist, Edward thought, this was a puzzling and highly unscientific train of thought. He wrote it off to eccentricity. The couple's dalmatians lay on the easy chairs and were fed scraps from the dining-room table. He had never dared to ask why they had no children.

One day, Edward walked into Wigboldus' office. ‘Herman, there's something I need your help with,' he said.

In some human cell cultures, he had observed divergent effects on the infection, confirming his hunch that there were actually two types of virus. They worked out the hypothesis and systematically isolated viruses from a large patient group. As it turned out, one of the
HIV
variants destroyed the patient more quickly than the other did. No one had ever suspected this before: he was the first.

Bottles of champagne were taken out of the lab coolers, and the festive atmosphere hung in the air for days. Edward obtained his doctorate with a thesis on his discovery; he also published four articles about it in
Science
and
The Lancet
, and took a giant step up the hierarchical ladder. From being the most junior research assistant, he was promoted to Wigboldus' sorcerer's apprentice.

His flash of intuition had been a moment of receptiveness, a rare moment of illumination — because he practised science by feel, like a diver in murky waters.

Occasionally he stopped and thought about the turn his life had taken. From being a dependable lab rat, he had become a person of importance, a man whose face was seen in the world. All thanks to a micro-organism made of protein and nucleic acid, too small to be viewed through anything but an electron microscope. The whole world was talking about it, but he was one of the few who had ever seen it in real life.

In their publications, Wigboldus was almost always cited as the principal author, even for those studies Edward had devised himself, yet he tolerated this tacitly; a form of mutualism had developed between them that he had no desire to disturb with displays of hurt pride.

It was at a conference in Berlin that Edward first noted a certain war-weariness. It was 1993, and there was still no prospect of a course of treatment, no sign of the magic bullet that would stop the virus. Ten years of research had produced minor improvements, but for most patients the illness was still deadly. It took three more years, until combination therapy was introduced, for
AIDS
to gradually become a chronic ailment.

Sometimes he thought back fondly on the early days of
AIDS
research; the creativity and hunger of that time, it seemed, had disappeared — not only for him, but for the entire field.

Somewhere back there, amid the turbulence, his mother had died, too. It was only witnessing his father's sorrow that finally brought on the tears. He was back at work the day after the funeral.

Missing her arrived in little fits and starts, as sudden realisations of the void at the edge of his life — the questions he could no longer ask, the comfort of her hand on the back of his neck, her warm pride that had always enveloped him, no matter what he did. Sometimes he caught himself thinking:
You can come back now, Mum. It's lasted long enough.

Herman Wigboldus was the first who dared to admit that the thrill was gone. They were sitting in a Japanese restaurant, the sashimi served beneath a dome of ice. Wigboldus tapped a hole in it and shattered the rest of the dome with his chopsticks. ‘Unusual, this,' he mumbled.

He ate hastily, like a conqueror.

Without looking up from his plate, he told Edward that he was thinking about quitting.
AIDS
had become a pharmaceutical problem; there was no longer any cause for fundamental research. He'd received an offer to develop vaccines for a publicly listed biotechnology firm, and it seemed like a good moment to make the switch.

Mammon beckons
, Edward thought. Wigboldus had always been interested in money, and now that he was nearing fifty he saw his chance to make a bundle. Edward understood that the older man's outpouring was meant to encourage him not to hang around any longer either, there where they had already skimmed off the creamiest of the cream.

• • •

His future came to him on the wings of a bird. In 1997, eighteen people in Hong Kong fell ill after contracting an avian influenza of the type H5N1. Six of them died — one in three. By way of comparison, the Spanish Flu had killed approximately one in forty. The alarm was heard around the world. For the first time, an avian flu had shown itself transferrable directly to humans, without what had previously been seen as the requisite interim host, the pig. It looked like a catastrophe was on its way, but no one could predict whether it would claim six victims or sixty million. Some two million poultry birds were culled in the Hong Kong region alone.

That was the start. Change was in the air.

Edward made an appointment with Jaap Gerson, director of the Centre for Infectious Disease Control in Bilthoven. On his way to their meeting place at the hotel-restaurant beside the A1 highway, he thought about what Wigboldus had said: ‘The moment has slipped away. The originality has worn off. We have to re-invent ourselves, Ed, find something new. Be opportunistic. No need to be ashamed of that. Opportunism is good.'

Even before their gravy rolls and bread arrived, Jaap Gerson said: ‘I've always got room for someone like you.'

Edward said: ‘Remember that big demonstration in The Hague? I was watching TV in the canteen when you came and stood beside me. You said something I've never forgotten. Something along the lines of our not being destroyed by nuclear weapons, but by viruses.'

Gerson nodded. ‘I guess I could have said something just like that.'

For almost a year, Edward drove back and forth between Amsterdam and Bilthoven. Then he moved to Utrecht, to a house with a garden beside Wilhelmina Park. He furnished it sparsely; when he came home in the evening, he sometimes had the feeling he was visiting a stranger. When he looked at the lives others led, he felt envious of their comfortable homes and their loves, the children they had. From that moment on, they formed closed units, focusing on themselves, their backs half-turned to the world. You lost them for a long time. Some of them you never got back at all.

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