In Phosphate Rocks, one of the ten objects found beside a corpse in the ruins of a demolished factory, is a small doll. Retired shift foreman John Gibson examines it in the presence of DI Rose Irvine.
The plastic doll is nothing like a real woman: completely artificial, elongated and smooth. No scent, no warmth, no softness, no quiet breath. There is something disturbing about the sterile, silent plastic.
John runs his fingers over the naked form of the doll, looking for the scratches. Yes, this is it. The same one. He remembers undressing her. Slowly, carefully – as gently as his big, clumsy fingers would allow. He sighs when his fingernail finds the deep indentation on the small of the doll’s back.
At the squeal of a chair pushing back, he looks up. The detective inspector has moved away from him; he notes her discomfort and blushes.
‘The missing catalyst,’ he says by way of explanation, putting the doll back on the table and withdrawing his hands lest she mistake the checking for fondling.
‘The catalyst for what?’
Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze (20 January 1758 – 10 February 1836)
Marie-Anne was three years old when she was sent to a convent on the death of her mother. She was married at the age of thirteen to Antoine Lavoisier (then aged twenty-eight) to avoid a union with a much older man at her father’s workplace, the Ferme Générale.
Marie-Anne became her husband’s lab assistant, translator and illustrator.
Her husband and father fell afoul of the French Revolution and were both executed by guillotine on the same day in 1794.
La République n’a pas besoin de savants ni de chimistes; le cours de la justice ne peut être suspendu.
(The Republic needs neither scholars nor chemists; the course of justice cannot be delayed.)
Revolutionary Tribunal Judge, Jean-Baptiste Coffinhal
Il ne leur a fallu qu’un moment pour faire tomber cette tête, et cent années peut-être ne suffiront pas pour en reproduire une semblable.
(It took them only an instant to cut off this head, and one hundred years might not suffice to reproduce its like.)
Mathematician, Joseph-Louis Lagrange
After Antoine’s death, impoverished Marie-Anne worked tirelessly to edit, illustrate and publish her husband’s final scientific papers.
Marie-Anne remarried in 1804, to the American-born physicist Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, but the second marriage was not a happy one and they separated after a few years.
Phosphate Rocks: A Death in Ten Objects by Fiona Erskine is published by Sandstone Press at £8.99 and is available here.