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Doctor January

Doctor January, September 2014
by Rhoda Baxter

Choc Lit
Featuring: Beth; James Hibbotson; Gordon
220 pages
ISBN: 1781891249
EAN: 9781781891247
Kindle: B00LIAS0T4
Paperback / e-Book
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"No fooling around in the lab, boys and girls; this is science!"

Fresh Fiction Review

Doctor January
Rhoda Baxter

Reviewed by Clare O'Beara
Posted January 18, 2015

Romance Contemporary

Here's an interesting hypothesis; women taking science PhDs don't get treated the same way as men. To conduct an experiment, let's turn Beth loose in a lab with male scientists Vik and Hibs, and observe the reactions they get from their supervisor Mark. Add a stress factor - the microscopes are booked up all day and they will have to rush through a bacteria experiment every night for a month.

DOCTOR JANUARY is from a publisher new to me, based in the UK. With a name like Choc Lit I was expecting the story to be light. Instead I found a seriously good contemporary look at women, relationships and the world of work in a version of The Women's Room for the twenty-first century. The setting could as easily be banking, advertising or any of a number of industries. Rhoda Baxter is writing about a world she knows, having qualified in microbiology, and she'll be a new name on my favourites list.

Beth has been dumped by a guy who went off to a job in America. The consensus among the other scientists is that the ex was an emotional bully, who stopped her from pursuing her photography hobby. Beth thinks, what do they know? The guys never had a long-term relationship. Her trendy new flat-mate Anna might be wiser, but she's quickly got her eye on the good-looking, smart, well-mannered young men. Hibs, in particular, sincerely admires Beth, but there's no point in trying anything while she's hung up on that ex. Maybe he'll just buy her a drink or six on her birthday, in between chasing off back to the lab and his karate practise.

Becoming stronger once she's acknowledged she is her own woman again, Beth proposes a calendar of attractive males in the world of science, to encourage young women to consider science as a career. Clothing will be worn, and the men must have PhDs. Not every doctor likes the thought of being hung on the wall and ogled. Who is going to be DOCTOR JANUARY?

This great fun concept deepens Beth's experience with her PhD supervisor. The young men attract attention from a cougar lady. And controlling, self-centred boyfriends get their own behavioural study, making this a well-rounded book. Rhoda Baxter has a brilliant theory, well executed and full of excitement, tension and romance. DOCTOR JANUARY should be read by every woman.

Learn more about Doctor January

SUMMARY

Six months after a painful break-up from Gordon, Beth's finally getting her life back on track. She has faith in her own scientific abilities and is willing to work hard to prove them. She's even beginning to see Hibbs (James Hibbotson), her dedicated lab partner, as more than just a lousy lothario in a lab-coat.

So when Gordon returns from America without warning and expects to be welcomed back into Beth's arms, she's totally thrown. She also begins to see that Gordon isn't the man she thought he was...

Hibbs has always held a candle for Beth, but he can only wait so long for her to realize there's more to life than being patronized and bullied by the one who's meant to love and protect her.

Doctor January is romantic comedy with dark undertones. The dialogue is light and funny, but the main theme is about saving someone from emotional abuse. It also touches on the difficulties faced by women in science.

Excerpt

Beth removed her cycle helmet and fluffed up her hair before she punched in the security code to get into the labs. As soon as she entered the corridor, she heard the shouting. Since she hadn’t had a card or text from Gordon, she was hoping she’d at least get a couple of cards and ‘happy birthdays’ from her colleagues, but it looked like she got to witness some sort of argument instead.

Vik, her fellow PhD student, was standing beside the door to the lab, apparently listening.

A female voice wailed, ‘You care more about those bloody bacteria than you do about me!’

Beth shot Vik a questioning glance. He put a finger to his lips, so she stopped outside the door too.

Hibs said something, his voice too low for Beth to make out the words.

‘Well, I’ve changed my mind,’ the woman said. ‘You can keep your experiments. I’ve had enough. We’re finished.’ Footsteps stamped towards the door.

Beth pulled back, flattening herself against the wall.

‘Wait,’ Hibs said, and the footsteps stopped. ‘You forgot your scarf.’

The girl made a strangled ugh noise and stormed out of the door. Beth tried to look like she hadn’t been listening outside as the girl gave another ugh, marched down the corridor and slammed the security door behind her.

Beth entered the lab to find Hibs concentrating on his computer screen. ‘Are you okay?’

Hibs tied back his long hair and shrugged. He was tall and slim and moved like something on the hunt. A Japanese ancestor a few generations back meant he had a faint, high-cheekboned exoticism about him. Beth was so comfortable hanging out with him as a friend, it sometimes surprised her that he was such a success with women. On the other hand, he was so phenomenally bad at keeping hold of the ones he bedded, that being his friend was a far better long-term option.

‘That one lasted … what, two weeks?’ Beth asked as she hung up her coat.

‘Ten days,’ said Hibs as he returned his attention to the computer.

Beth shook her head. ‘Anyone would think you don’t really want a girlfriend.’

‘Why would I want a girlfriend? They just get in the way and make you go to dinner parties,’ he said, without turning away from the screen.

‘Not all of them.’

Hibs grinned. ‘Enough pleasantries, come look at this.’

A Plexiglas partition separated the lab into two zones – a dry area with desks and computers and, beyond it, the ‘wet’ area, where the lab benches were. Beth tossed her bags under her desk and went to stand next to Hibs. He pointed to some red and green pictures on the screen.

‘Oh cool. Are those your glow-in-the-dark bacteria?’

‘Uh huh. GFP – green fluorescent protein.’ He clicked a button and the images overlaid each other to show little black ovals with green spots. ‘The green is my protein. Look, you can see where it clusters in the cell.’

Beth nudged him out of the way and leaned closer to look at the images, which showed a bacterium with two glowing green patches. ‘That’s cool,’ she said. Her finger traced the pattern of green. ‘So, if we compared these to images of your mutant bacteria and my mutant bacteria …’

‘We could see if yours holds the other proteins together.’ Hibs finished off her sentence.

‘Can we do it in time for Roger’s presentation next month? We’ve got six weeks.’ It was their supervisor’s turn to present the research done in his lab to the microbiology department’s annual symposium. But Beth felt that the slides she’d contributed to the talk were not very interesting – they didn’t show any conclusions as to what the protein she was studying actually did.

Hibs frowned. ‘Not sure.’

Beth pulled her diary out and started marking off the days. ‘Let’s see. We each need to make the strains … at least six sets of images each …’ She crossed off days until she ran out.

‘We don’t have time.’ Hibs’s voice was full of disappointment. ‘Bugger. It would have been really good. Lots of nice pictures you could have used in your thesis.’

Beth stared glumly at the diary covered in pencil marks. If she could produce data that told a nice, solid story, then Roger would have to show her some respect. And she could get a decent research paper out of it. ‘We can still do the experiments,’ she said. ‘It just won’t be done in time.’

‘What are you two looking so pissed off about?’ Vik came in carrying a small bucket of ice chips. When he’d first arrived, they’d tried to use his full name – Kaushalya Vikramarathne – but ever since their first trip to the pub, he’d been known simply as Vik.

Beth outlined the problem and Vik pulled a face. ‘Why don’t you use the microscopes downstairs?’

Hibs shook his head. ‘Booked solid for three months. They’re only free at night.’

For a moment, they were all silent as Beth stood in between the two men. There was a nice symmetry to it, she thought – her, small and blonde, in between two guys who were both tall and dark. Beth and her boys.

‘Shame you’re not nocturnal,’ Vik said.

Nocturnal. Working at night had not occurred to her, but now Vik had mentioned it, it was an obvious solution. She looked at Hibs to see if he was thinking the same thing.

He was. ‘We could run the experiments at night,’ Hibs said. ‘It would probably be better, come to think of it. Less chance of someone knocking the microscope out of frame.’

‘We could run our two experiments simultaneously …’ said Beth, excitement rising in her chest. ‘And take it in turns to do the night shift …’

They looked at the diary again.

‘It’ll be a close call,’ said Hibs. ‘We’d have to work every night to get it done in time.’ He tapped a staccato rhythm with his pen. ‘What do you think?’

‘I’m up for it if you are,’ Beth said.

‘You know me,’ said Hibs. ‘I’m always up for it.’

Beth gave him a mock punch on the shoulder. ‘Seriously though, it would take up lots of time. And neither of us would be able to have a social life.’

Hibs shrugged. ‘I don’t care. I’m single.’

Beth glanced at him to see if he was going to comment on the limbo status of her own relationship with Gordon but, thankfully, he said nothing. Vik shook his head and headed off to the other end of the lab.

‘I’m going to ask Roger at the lab meeting,’ said Beth. ‘When he sees that my results don’t support his theory, he’s bound to let me try and prove mine.’

Beth felt she did well in her presentation, putting up slides of DNA sequences and bar charts to show what the mutant bacteria did. At the start of her PhD, standing here in front of even three people would have terrified her into stuttering. Now she was able to talk with more confidence.

‘So,’ she said in conclusion. ‘There are two possibilities: either my protein acts as an “on” switch for the rest of the proteins, or it holds them together so that they can communicate. Judging by these results, I think it’s the second explanation.’

‘Let’s have a look at those graphs again.’ Roger, her supervisor, crossed his arms over his belly. He raised his eyebrows, making them ride up into his thinning curls. ‘It looks like they support the first hypothesis.’

Beth flicked back to the right slide. ‘Yes, but the data points are scattered. There isn’t a significant effect.’ Roger glared at her for just long enough to tell her that he did not appreciate being contradicted. Beth looked away.

‘No, I think you’re wrong,’ Roger said. ‘You just need more data.’ He leaned back in his seat and tapped the end of his pen on the table. ‘Do me some slides. I’m going to throw some of this stuff into my departmental presentation. The highlight will be Hibs’s pictures, of course.’‘Actually,’ said Beth. ‘I’m hoping to put Hibs’s GFP proteins into mutants that are missing my protein. If my protein is holding them together, removing it will make the green end up scattered instead of nicely packed into clusters. I’ve already started making—’

‘Is this true?’ Roger turned to Hibs, who looked surprised.

Beth bristled. Why did he need to ask Hibs for confirmation? Roger always did this –pretended that she was incapable of independent thought. If he didn’t think she should be in science, then why on earth had he taken her on as a PhD student?

‘Yes,’ Hibs said. ‘Beth has started making the strains. As she just said.’ He nodded to Beth.

‘Well, I think you should concentrate on getting those graphs sorted out,’ Roger said. ‘I need those slides by the end of the month. You need a couple of extra data sets so you’ll have to get a move on.’

‘But the images—’

‘Okay. Is there anything else?’ Roger looked round the table. Vik and Hibs both shook their heads. ‘Right,’ said Roger. ‘I’ll see you next week.’ He turned to Beth. ‘Keep me posted on how that data set is coming along. Now, I’ve got a meeting to go to.’ He swept out.

Beth slapped the laptop shut, muttering under her breath. She had been working in Roger’s lab for two years now and it was always the same. He undermined her at every step. It wasn’t as though he was even a good supervisor. She wouldn’t get any real direction on her project if it weren’t for Hibs.

‘Hey, steady on,’ said Hibs. ‘It’s not the computer’s fault that our boss is an arse.’

‘How come you don’t get this kind of crap?’ Beth said to Vik, who was in his first year of a PhD and seemed to be getting an easy ride of it so far.

Vik shrugged. ‘Maybe it takes him a while to work up a vat of bile.’

‘I think it’s because he doesn’t like women in the lab.’ The minute she said it, doubt niggled. It was all very well bringing out the sexism card, but was it true? Could she be sure it wasn’t just her that Roger didn’t rate?

‘He’s a bully,’ said Hibs. ‘You really should stand up for yourself a bit more, Beth. You’re good at what you do. You know that.’

The environment at her work was so stifling, with its hierarchies and politics. It made her so angry. There must be less confrontational places to work. ‘Yeah, well, just wait until I get enough data to write up my thesis. I am so going to get into industry.’

Hibs poured out fresh teas and coffees for all three of them. ‘What makes you think it’s any better out there?’ he asked as he put the drinks on a tray. ‘Get the door for me, will you, Vik.’

They trooped upstairs, past Roger’s office and into the lab. Beth paused to check her pigeonhole for post. A card from Mum and Dad. A couple from friends from undergrad days, most of them joking about being a quarter of a century old. She raced through them, scanning to see who they were from and checking the envelopes twice, in case Gordon had sent the card home for someone to post. Nothing.

Beth stomped into the office and plugged the laptop in to charge. Then she dropped into a chair and started to check her e-mail – maybe he’d got in touch while she was in the lab meeting.

There were messages from a number of friends. A few posts on her Facebook wall. Nothing from Gordon.

Had he really forgotten her birthday? They had agreed to stay in touch when he left, but after the first few e- mails, there had been nothing. Beth sighed. Why couldn’t she just get over Gordon? She missed him so much it hurt. It wasn’t just the comfort of having a boyfriend. She missed the way he looked at her, as though nothing and no one else mattered. When he really made time for her, it was incredible. Just thinking about it made her pulse quicken. Gordon could make her feel sexy and alive in ways that no one else had done. It was as though they connected at a deeper level than normal. Without him, everything seemed duller.

She banged out a couple of responses to old friends. She didn’t really have much to say to them nowadays. They’d grown up and grown apart.

‘What’s up?’ Hibs came up behind her.

‘Nothing,’ she said as she closed down her Facebook page.

She waited for him to squeeze past her chair and go over to his desk, but he remained standing behind her shoulder. ‘Still bothered about Roger?’

‘Yeah. Sort of.’ And another thing – neither of the guys had mentioned her birthday either. Well, that wasn’t fair. She always remembered theirs. She even organised the collections and bought them presents. It was official. This was the lousiest birthday ever.

Hibs patted her on the shoulder. ‘Nothing like a bit of work to get your mind off things. Come on, Miss Tyler. To your bench.’

She shrugged his hand off and stood up. ‘Sod off, Hibs.’

‘Now that’s no way to talk to your favourite postdoc.’ He pulled a disappointed face.

He was right. Just because Gordon had forgotten, she shouldn’t take it out on Hibs and Vik. ‘Sorry.’ She pushed her hair back. ‘It’s not your fault. I’m sorry.’ Mind you, she thought, Vik and Hibs had forgotten too. That hurt. She’d thought they were friends she could rely on.

‘Apology accepted. Now, to work.’ He made shooing motions with his hands. Puzzled, Beth started towards her bench.

The benches were laid out so that the lab was divided into a series of bays, with a walkway at the end separating them from the communal equipment. It was a small enough facility that Beth and Hibs had to share a bay. Roger had commandeered the first bay for himself, even though he rarely made it into the lab any more. Hibs had started using it to store various boxes of kit.

Vik was loitering at the end of Beth’s work area. As the newest member of the lab, he got the smallest bench, tucked away in the back next to the solvent cupboard. There was no reason for him to be near her bench. Suspicion crept in. ‘What’s going on?’

‘Okay, time to close your eyes.’ Hibs was grinning. ‘Go on. Close them. Otherwise I’ll have to put my hands over your eyes.’

‘Ugh, no way. I don’t know where they’ve been.’ She closed her eyes. Hibs’s hand closed round her elbow and he guided her towards her bench. The warmth of the contact felt strange. She reminded herself that this was only Hibs. They worked in such a small space that they could almost bump into each other if they turned round too quickly. So, sharing space with Hibs shouldn’t bother her in the slightest. Except, today it did. Maybe she was just missing Gordon so much that physical contact with anyone was a big deal. She had to pull herself together.

‘Open your eyes.’ His voice was warm in her ear.

As she opened them, both men shouted, ‘Happy Birthday!’

They’d made a garland out of Eppendorf tubes and strung it along her bench. Someone had filled up several days’ worth of yellow tip boxes and drawn big bows on the autoclave tape that sealed them shut. Putting fiddly yellow pipette tips in the racks was one of the most boring chores in the lab and they’d saved her having to do any that week. In the middle of her tidy work area was a parcel, wrapped up messily, as only boys could do.

‘Oh. How lovely. Thanks guys.’ She really was touched. The heavy sadness that had been settling on her lifted. They’d remembered: she was loved.

‘You thought we’d forgotten, didn’t you?’ Vik was practically bouncing with excitement. ‘Go on. Open the present. Open the present.’

Beth tore open the wrapping. Inside was a gift voucher for the camera shop in town and a T-shirt. She lifted it out – it was a skinny top with ‘It’s okay Pluto, I’m not a planet either’ written on it.

‘Is it the right size?’ Vik said. ‘Hibs guessed.’

‘Of course it’s the right size,’ said Hibs. He was leaning back against his own bench, on the other side of the small bay. ‘I’m good at guessing stuff like that.’

Beth held it against herself. It would be a snug fit, but yes, it was the right size. It was kind of weird that Hibs had guessed her size so accurately, but then, maybe he’d seen enough women’s bodies to become an expert on them. Because he’d never made a move on her, she’d assumed that he’d not bothered noticing hers. It felt unsettling to think that he had.

She picked up the birthday card. It had a Far Side print of two bacteria on it and she laughed. ‘That’s made my day!’

Hibs watched Beth examining her gifts with pleasure. It had taken him ages to find the right presents for her and it was gratifying to see that she loved them.

His lips twitched into a little smile. They always did that when he saw Beth. He couldn’t think when she’d first started having this effect on him. Certainly, when he’d first met her, he’d thought she was cute, sure, but nothing much more than that. He might have even found her attractive, but she’d displayed her appalling lack of taste by opting to go out with Gordon the Git, which made Hibs think of her as some sort of pretty idiot for a while. He knew now that she wasn’t an idiot – just a girl with terrible taste in men. Over the past few years they’d got to know each other well, like you do when you work opposite each other day in day out, and now she was a friend. Almost off-limits. But whenever he saw her, he felt like he’d become a better person just by looking at her.

It had been a few months since Gordon the Git had flitted off to America, and Beth had finally stopped coming into work with red-rimmed eyes now. Maybe she was getting over him. Maybe if he approached her … but then if she wasn’t ready he’d have ruined a perfectly good friendship. Hibs sighed. Better to leave things as they were for now.

Beth looked up and smiled. He stopped staring at her. Just a friend. Just a friend.

‘You guys are the best.’ She leapt off her seat and, to his delight, gave him a quick peck on the cheek. He watched Vik tense as Beth stepped towards him. She hesitated and touched Vik’s arm instead. ‘Thank you. I love them.’

Hibs tried not to touch the spot on his cheek where Beth’s lips had touched it. She felt comfortable enough to kiss him on the cheek, but not Vik. It didn’t mean anything, of course, but he couldn’t help feeling pleased.

Beth folded the vouchers inside the T-shirt and stowed them in her bag. ‘So, pub tonight then?’

‘Of course,’ said Vik.

‘Naturally,’ said Hibs. ‘Now, perhaps we should all get back to work? Before Roger comes in and accuses us of not being serious scientists.’


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