They told me to study botany. It is a suitable subject for a woman.
I remember my father wearing the coat in his laboratory, its beige linen stained and burned. I wear it today as I grind my powder.
I remember my father wearing the coat the day I made my discovery. I was allowed to work by myself by then, in the laboratory at home. My father’s university benches were closed to me from the day he fell ill. They laughed at the idea of my continuing his work. They told me to study botany. It is a suitable subject for a woman.
I remember how the compound in the tube changed colour that day. I ran up to my father’s bedroom to show him what I had done. He forced his frail body up from his chair, and into this coat, struggling downstairs to the laboratory to meticulously check my results. I remember how he held me. I remember holding him in turn, as he died the next day.
I remember Joseph. He was an old student of my father’s, a quiet man and a friend. I told him what I had done, and asked his advice on how to publish our breakthrough. I remember his congratulations and condolences, his offer to help.
I remember reading his letter to the society announcing his discovery.
I do not need to remember my fury, for as I heat the liquid and dissolve the powder, I can feel it, a rage that wraps round me through every thread of my father’s old coat.
There is not much time left now. I stayed my hand for too long. I was foolish. I tried to argue our case with honesty and facts. At first they laughed, and then they were angry that I should slur such a good man. The professor came to see my mother and brother. I was not allowed to talk with him. The next day he came again with two of his students, and dismantled my father’s laboratory. I was not allowed to keep my notebooks or my specimens. They were not suitable subjects for a woman. Only this old coat, worthless and tatty, was left to me. I wear it now.
Tomorrow, Joseph will sail for America. He will be feted there. They have awarded him a chair, built him a laboratory so he may make many other new discoveries. He will build a career on my father’s work. He will build a career on my work.
He will NOT build a career on my work.
It was only this morning that Mother announced his visit. We must say farewell. We must offer our congratulations. I must apologise and make amends.
They told me to study botany, so I took their advice. They forgot that a dedicated botanist learns much more than the names of plants. They forgot that a woman, banned from her vocation and kept busy with chores, is adept at working quickly and in secret. They forgot that a chemist does not need a laboratory to practice her art.
It must be flawless. There must be no suspicion. But even with so little time at my disposal, I am skilled in my work, I have my father’s talent. It will not fail. Today, I wear my father’s coat as I mix my solution. Later I will change into an afternoon frock suitable for a lady. I do hope Joseph enjoys his last tea with us.