"You and Madame Weill have taken extraordinary care of me," I reply, thinking of the many favors she's done for me over the years. "You secured me this position, and she found me a flat."
"An extraordinary mind deserves extraordinary care," he says, the smile now gone and his face serious. "After seeing you present your paper at the Royal Institution in London in which you handily imposed order on the disordered realm of coal—and then watching you correct that other speaker's measurements of X-ray diagrams so handily—I had to offer you a position here. How could we miss the chance to have a chercheur with such facile understanding of trous dans le charbon?" He pauses, then a smile reemerges, and he says, "Or holes in coal, as I've heard you describe it?"
He laughs heartily at his use of my English phrase "holes in coal" and the memory, much to my relief. Because when I stood up at the Royal Institution conference to point out the flaws in the speaker's data, not everyone responded favorably. Two of the scientists in the audience called out for me to sit down—one even yelled "women should know their place"—and I could see the dismay register on several others' faces. Not at the outbursts by the two scientists but at my audacity in correcting a male peer.
After we finish laughing, he compliments my research into the microstructure of coal. It's true that I used my own methods of experimentation and an unusual form of measurement—a single molecule of helium—but I wouldn't say the coal field has been completely organized as a result.
"You do know that I can apply my methods to subjects other than coal?" I offer, thinking how surprised my family would be to witness this rather deft management of French banter. Somehow, it is almost easier to exchange light small talk in French than English, where I am awkward—either too shy or too blunt. It's as if the French language itself emboldens me and smooths over my sharp edges.
"We are counting on it," he exclaims. Even though our laughter has subsided, his smile remains, and he adds, Although you may soon see that a good flat is harder to come by than a good position for a scientist in postwar France, and you may be more effusive in your thanks to Madame Weill than to me."
I know my great fortune that Adrienne was able to secure me a room in an enormous flat on rue Garancière only a few blocks from famous Left Bank haunts like the Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots. The flat's owner, a professor's austere widow who has not relinquished her mourning black attire and prefers to be referred to only as Madame, had only taken me in at the request of Adrienne, who'd worked with her late husband; accommodations in Paris are otherwise almost impossible to find. Never mind the once-weekly use of the bathtub and the after-hours access to the kitchen, the flat's soaring ceilings and the walls of bookshelves in the library-turned-bedroom are a dream.
"Come." He gestures toward a long hallway extending from the lobby. "Monsieur Jacques Mering eagerly awaits his new chercheur."
Monsieur Mathieu leads me through a warren of hallways, past three groups of white-coated researchers, including, much to my astonishment, several women. I'd heard that the French value intelligence above all else—whether it comes from a man or woman is of no matter to them—and I'd always dismissed these declarations as just talk, since they usually came from Frenchmen. But the sheer number of women working here is undeniable, a shocking difference from my last position at BCURA.
Finally, we stop. We stand before an open door that reveals a vast, airy space lined with black lab tables and equipment and a beehive of scientists, each so deeply engrossed in their tasks that our presence doesn't even seem to register. This hum of scientific apparatus operating and bright minds engrossed in pioneering research is like a symphony to me. I don't believe in an afterlife, but if I did, it would resemble this room.
A man suddenly glances up. Bright green eyes meet mine, and crinkles appear at the corners as his face lights in a smile. The grin stays firmly fixed on his lips as he approaches us, making the high arches of his cheekbones more pronounced. I cannot help but smile in return; his joy is infectious.
"Ah, Mademoiselle Franklin, we have been most anxious to welcome you to Paris," the man says. "Docteur Franklin, I mean."
"Yes, Docteur Franklin," Monsieur Mathieu says, "I'd like to introduce you to the head of the labo in which you'll be working. This is Monsieur Jacques Mering."
"A pleasure," Monsieur Mering says, his hand outstretched in greeting. "We have been waiting for you."
My breath catches at this warm welcome, and I think, It seems I've finally arrived.