The Polymer Chemist Makes a Sandwich

At 7.30 a.m. on Christmas day the world is silent; I play my 1976 LP of ‘In the Mist’ and look out at the trees and spider-webs adorned by dew. Memories gradually crystallise.


In a bewildered tone, was the single work uttered by my host as we sat in a branch of Frankie and Benny’s waiting for the pizza to arrive. The in-house music system was playing mediocre Europop, while in the Gents’ toilet we were treated to Italian language recordings; how to say ‘I came here by car’. So much for romantic Latins, I thought; or perhaps after dark the soundtrack changes into something more intimate, and gives you instructions on how to tell a young lady that ‘I think your hair is very beautiful and I want to make love to you until the apricots blossom.’

Somewhere in the kitchen, our dough was being firmly beaten. I remember thinking that it would have been more enjoyable and less tense if we had grabbed a sandwich and headed for the park.

I had travelled up at short notice to attend a job interview, and my companion was supposed to be interrogating me for the post of Research Chemist. What I didn’t know, and was to learn a few months later, was that my area of expertise coincided with a massive commercial and technical disaster which had recently befallen the firm. It was considered vitally important that the company directors did not find out that their problem could have been avoided; they were convinced that nobody knew more about this topic than they. My arrival could easily have exposed their clumsy half-understood reaction schemes, and shown that a better, cheaper technique was already being used in four different cities round the UK.

I imagined myself gesticulating with a half-eaten sandwich as we sat by the river listening to the drone of traffic and the occasional car radio, a middle-aged woman drumming on the steering wheel. Consider this material, I would say, as being like the mustard pickle. Under normal circumstances, these two materials (pointing to the granary bread and the roast ham) are quite incompatible; but if the additive is precisely applied, and the molecules allowed to accumulate in this orientation, we can establish a permanent and durable bond….

But alas, it was too late. They had failed to incorporate the correct material in the right manner, and the intimate marriage of the two components had failed to take place, and…well, I’m sure you recall the headlines. It was pure chance that the woman had been walking below the building when the barrier fell. A few seconds later, or a less vigorous gust of wind, and she would have been unharmed and the firm would have remained an obscure production site, supplying ordinary merchandise to a host of uncomplaining customers.

But now, I am making my own sandwich; behind me I can hear Doves singing about The Storm, and I am playing with slices of white and brown bread, trying to decide whether to hold the filling between them or just heap it generously on top, leaving it to cascade like a Venetian still life of gleaming vegetables. The song reminds me of other meals, and other journeys to distant towns. On my plate were olives; should I arrange them in the shape of a molecule of Monolite Yellow 83, or perhaps instead spell out the skeleton of Orion?

The Camembert has a streaked skin like an alien from Dr Who and its parchment-coloured heart gleams coldly. The artisan boule loaf is too dense to make decent toast, with a firmament of tiny pores uniformly spread through each slice, denying me the spongy pleasure that comes from a proper loaf of Milanda’s.

Reckless and wasteful to discard the crusts, but they impair the aesthetic charm of this dainty snack; it is as though somebody has taken a black marker-pen and drawn bold outlines onto Hughes’ classic portrait of Juliette Law. Their removal is deeply satisfying, both as a process of improvement and in the final result, leaving the sandwich in elegant harmony with the room, instead of being aggressively at odds with my pristine kitchen bench.

On the way to work I pass a yellow Vauxhall Viva which has been parked (or perhaps abandoned) in the front garden of a nearby house. The gleaming chrome bumpers are pitted with spots of rust, in a kind of constellation which may be Orion or Monolite yellow. Beads of sap and dead flies lie scattered over the paintwork, waiting to be removed by the owner’s kids as they perform the weekly ritual of cleaning this dead motor. I wonder if the original owner drove to work each day in 1976, wearing sunglasses and Brutus Gold flared jeans, with cheese-and-tomato sandwiches in the glove compartment (prepared by his devoted wife who had no idea that his actual dinner was a pint in the local boozer, followed by a clumsy petting session in the back seat with one of the secretaries from his firm). One day, inspired by an episode of Reginald Perrin, she prepared elegant sandwiches with the crusts removed. She eagerly awaited his return that night, and enquired about his lunch; had he noticed anything different?

No, he said; and at that moment the deception began to unravel, with tearful accusations and light-hearted denial. He spent that night sleeping in his car, and two weeks later was severely beaten up by unknown strangers.

Perhaps it would be interesting to create an inside-out sandwich, with a few pieces of toast held in the centre of meat and relish. This would be rather like that experiment I heard about; normally, we assemble adhesive joints using sheets of oxidised aluminium sandwiched together with epoxy resin. But one researcher made up a slurry of aluminium oxide in a mass of epoxy, and cast it into thin coupons which were then analysed. The overall composition was the same, but the end results were entirely different, and nobody could explain why.

He had been listening to Janacek; surely that makes everything clear?


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