Collisions And Love

Shutterstock © A swirling science image for romantic short story Collisions and Love


In this romantic short story, the forces of attraction and rejection are as powerful as an atomic reaction, or so it seems to a physics student in love

“In the beginning there was nothing. But a fraction of a second later, our universe was born.”

The scientist’s eyes are bright with passion as he speaks. He has dark, wavy hair and a way of throwing his hands about that reminds me of Werner.

And although the scientist is talking directly to the camera and, therefore, us – an audience made up of physics degree students and curious laymen – about the beginning of our universe, that bit could be about Werner and me too.

One second we hadn’t been aware of each other’s existence. The next, he bumped my shoulder as he walked past the university coffee machine, and our worlds collided.

“My apologies. I wasn’t paying attention,” Werner had said, catching my irritated gaze.

I’d been about to berate him for not looking where he was going. Thanks to him I’d managed to spill coffee over some papers, but there was something about that first shock of contact that had stopped me.

I’d been at Durham for a term. How come our paths hadn’t crossed before? And they hadn’t. I’d have remembered Werner. His dark hair, serious manner, that oddly formal Germanic accent and his oh-so-English words.

Oh my days. Did I do that?

His brow furrowed as he took in the spilt coffee. He whipped out a handkerchief that was so big, it was something a magician might have used to conceal a rabbit and mopped at the mess.

“I’m not sure that’s helping,” I said.

“No, it’s not.” He frowned. “Can I get you another?”

“Coffee or set of notes?”

“Um – maybe coffee? In the first instance,” he qualifies.

He looked so apologetic I think I’d have said yes anyway, even if he hadn’t had a presence that was hard to ignore. Not to mention the kind of eyes in which every emotion he was feeling was written large. He had – still has – beautiful eyes.

I’m jolted back to the present by the scientist on screen, who’s now walking along the underground corridors of CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) spreading his hands to encompass the great snake-like structure beside him.

“Welcome to The Hadron Collider, the most powerful particle accelerator ever built. Its job is to collide two high energy particle beams at close to the speed of light. Here scientists from all over the world collaborate on many different projects in a single quest – to forward man’s thirst for knowledge about our universe.”

I might be feeling slightly distracted at the moment – with thoughts of Werner – but I can’t deny there is something very special about watching a documentary on the subject of the Hadron Collider when it is actually only 100 metres below us. Buried in 27 kilometres of underground tunnels.

This field trip to Geneva is something Werner and I have been looking forward to for weeks. We’re both geeks. Of course we are, or we wouldn’t be studying physics at Durham.

I earned the nickname Queen Geek in sixth form, but Werner is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Several of his peers and even some of the lecturers joke that he’ll win a Nobel Prize one day.

But he is spectacularly stupid when it comes to women. Or maybe he just doesn’t love me any more. Neither of these options is very palatable and I’ve been considering them both, pretty much to the exclusion of everything else, for the past four days.

The charismatic scientist continues. “Everything around us – the chair you are sitting on, the floor, ourselves, is made up of matter, and yet ordinary matter makes up only five per cent of the universe. Of the rest, 26.8 per cent is made up of dark matter and the remaining 68.2 per cent is made up of dark energy. Although in real terms science has yet to prove the existence of dark matter, we are sure that it exists.”

The scientist still sounds amazingly cheery and passionate. Inwardly, I grit my teeth. I can shine a light – if you’ll excuse the pun – on the existence of dark energy. A great deal of it has been swirling around in my head for the last couple of days.

Deciding that I’ll catch up with the cheery scientist later – this movie is on a loop – I slide out of my seat and slip out of the cinema. I can’t concentrate properly anyway. No one seems to notice me leave and a few seconds later I’m outside the building and standing beneath a clear blue Geneva sky. It’s March and cold, but not actually snowing at this moment. In the distance I can see a range of snow-capped mountains. Ski season is in full swing.

Werner and I had planned to go to the slopes later this month. His parents are high-flying hedge funders who have an apartment in the Alps.

I feel a stab of regret as I wonder if we’ll still go there. If we will ever do anything together again.

As I stroll along the wide sidewalk by the busy main road that runs beside CERN, my mind flicks back to the night when our world imploded.

We’d been having a drink in The Crazy Frog just before we’d come on this trip. The usual crowd. Liam, Sophie, Gemma, Rose and Harry, and of course, Werner and me.

Werner had been his usual cheery self. He wasn’t the life and soul of the party – that was Liam’s job – but neither was he a total introvert like Gemma who used her long, dark fringe as a curtain to shut out the world.

Sophie and Rose were chatting about a new band they planned to see at the weekend and Harry and I were talking about a physics test that was coming up – we were in the same study group.

There was a lot of banter and chat flying around. Nothing serious. Werner seemed OK. Then as the evening wore on he seemed to get quieter. To the point when I leaned across and touched his arm. “You OK, babe?”

“Ja. I’m good. I’m fine.” He smiled at me, then touched his brow as though in explanation. “A slight headache.”

I’d nodded in understanding. He suffered from frequent headaches. We sometimes joked that they were his brain’s overload valve. Like an overloaded trip fuse after a power surge. He never stopped thinking.

So I wasn’t surprised when he got up a little while later, made his excuses and said he was heading back to the halls.

“Shall I come with you?”

“No need. You stay. Enjoy your evening.” He blew me a kiss.

It was actually only an hour or so later that the rest of us decided to call it a night too. Or at least, the ones who hadn’t already gone. Rose and Harry had decided on an early night soon after Werner, and I don’t remember when Gemma had gone. She was so quiet that her absence didn’t make much of a hole.

It was as I was passing the accommodation block that I saw them. If I’d have been five seconds earlier or ten seconds later, I’d have missed the whole thing, but it was almost as if the universe had set the stage. A tableau for me to see. I saw the familiar figure of Werner move across a lighted second floor window, followed almost immediately by the equally familiar figure of Gemma. Then the figures merged into a hug – a cartoon silhouette, a blob of dark matter – freeze framed briefly before Gemma reached out to tug the curtain across, to blot out the prying eyes of the night.

For a few seconds I was so shocked I couldn’t move. Surely I hadn’t just seen that. It must be someone who looked like Werner and Gemma.

My first instinct was to charge into the block, pound on the door and demand to know what the hell was going on. There were two problems with this plan. One was that I wasn’t exactly sure which room was Gemma’s – and the other was that I might have been mistaken and would end up hammering down the door of some totally innocent student.

I decided to go back to our halls and knock on Werner’s door. With any luck I’d find him lying down with a cold compress over his head which was his usual headache remedy – he didn’t like drugs. And if he wasn’t there, well, then I’d simply wait. And when he turned up I’d ask him calmly and rationally where he’d been and listen to his explanation. Calmly and rationally.

It didn’t quite work out like that. He hadn’t been there. He hadn’t returned for the best part of two hours – and then, when he finally turned up, he’d looked as guilty as hell and compounded that by lying about what he’d been doing.

First, he said he’d been collecting some lecture notes from a mate – a male mate – and then when I’d pressed him he’d finally confessed it had actually been Gemma but had point blank refused to admit they’d had any physical contact at all, let alone been locked together in a passionate clinch in full view of anyone walking past. Which brings me back to my point about him being spectacularly stupid.

It was a row that went on until deep in the night and it had no good ending. And since it happened, four days ago, we’ve barely spoken. But now the hurt has subsided and the anger has worn off a bit, I’m just so sad. I think Werner is too.

I reach a bench – it’s part of a tram shelter really – but there’s no one in it so I sit down and hook out my phone to see if anyone’s messaged me. No one has.

Gemma isn’t on this trip. If she was, I’d probably have spoken to her. Asked her for some kind of explanation. Or maybe I’d have slapped her. Probably best she’s not here, on that basis. Werner has closed down – it’s easy to avoid each other in a crowd.

My mind goes back to science. In an atom if the nucleus is the size of a human body, the electrons orbiting it are the size of a human hair and they are twelve miles away. There is a lot of empty space in an atom.

If I am the nucleus, Werner is an electron. Miles and miles away.

Oh, no, he’s not. I hear footsteps and when I glance up I see that Werner is standing right beside me, hands buried deep in his pockets, looking awkwardly Germanic.

“I wanted to check that you were OK.” His voice is awkward too.

OK wandering around on my own in Geneva or OK that you made out with another woman?

It’s hard to keep the snipe out of my words.

“I did not make out with her.”

“Oh no – you were collecting course notes, weren’t you.”

“I was not collecting course notes.”

“Maybe you would like to explain then? What you were doing…”

I let my voice tail off because I don’t want to fight. I’m tired as well as sad.

“That is why I am here,” he said quietly and sits alongside me on the bench. I look at him and his beautiful, dark, expressive eyes – and I see they are tired and sad too.

“My parents are splitting up,” he says unexpectedly. “Dad made a few bad investment decisions last year and then he compounded this by throwing more money at a sinking pot – is that the English expression?”

“Throwing good money after bad.”

“Danke.” He always lapses into German when he’s stressed.

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” I tell him. “About your parents.”

I can’t see what this has to do with Gemma. But I can see there is more to come, so I keep quiet.

“They have lost nearly everything. They had to sell the apartment in the Alps last year, apparently. I did not know this.” He blinked. “Or I would not have invited you there. Of course.”

“Werner, please don’t worry.”

Until now he has been staring into the distance – we are sitting side by side – but now he swivels to face me. He halts me with his eyes.

“I began to have anxiety attacks when they were fighting. I feel as though my heart begins beating too hard in my chest – at first I thought, this is some kind of attack.” His voice stumbles a bit. “But after a medical check I know it is not physical and I feel such a fool.”

“Anxiety attacks are common.” I squeeze his hand. I didn’t realise I was holding it until that moment.

“I know.”

I nod. I guess it’s like so many other things in life. it’s different when it happens to us.

“I knew that Gemma had seen someone about anxiety,” Werner adds quietly. “I didn’t want to break her confidence by telling you, that’s why I talked to her. Also…” He sighs. “Also, I am ashamed.”

“Of having panic attacks,” I whisper, horrified at the pain in his eyes.

“Not of panic attacks. Of my family fighting over the pieces of what’s left.”

He smiles a little ruefully.

“I feel like a particle in the Hadron Collider – smashed out of existence by a force I did not see coming.

“And for the record,” he adds. “I did not make out with or kiss Gemma. A hug, that is all. From one anxiety attacker to another. That is what you saw. I promise you this.”

I could see the truth of it in his eyes.

“I love you,” I say before I have time to edit the words which neither of us has ever said before.

His eyes fix on mine. For once they are not so transparent, but deep and dark with emotion.

“I love you, also,” he says solemnly.

“I’m sorry I overreacted,” I add.

“You didn’t. I should not have lied to you. Whatever my reasons were.”

Thank goodness Gemma hasn’t been here. I think about her shutting out the world with her curtain of fringe and suddenly I feel grateful to her for being able to help Werner when he needed it.

I may have grown up a smidgeon or so over the last few seconds. Like in science, I’ve learned a new law that has blown apart all the old ones.

“Shall we go back before we miss the coach?” Werner asks.

I nod. We get up, still hand in hand.

“Did you know this road is called Esplanade des Particules?” he murmurs as we stroll.

“No. But that’s very cool.” I pause, before continuing.

There’s loads we don’t know about science, isn’t there? That’s what I’ve realised lately. But thank goodness we’re humble enough to realise it. And to carry on learning.

“Similar to relationships,” Werner says. There’s a smile in his voice and his hand feels warm in mine.

All the dark energy that’s been whirring round my head feels lighter. I feel like I should tell someone. Set up an experiment in the Hadron Collider. Work out an equation. Is there an equation for love? 1+1 = 1 to the power of infinity?

Or maybe I’ll just keep that one to myself for a while.

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Allison Hay

I joined the "My Weekly" team thirteen years ago and, more recently, "The People's Friend". I love the variety of topics we cover both online and in the magazines. I manage the digital content for the brands, sharing features and information on the website, social media and in our digital newsletters.