A soft grey rain flecked the glass between the cheap plastic venetian blinds.
‘I’m no Casanova. I don’t mean to suggest I am. But I have lived my life. I have. And every woman I’ve ever known. Intimately, I mean. Do you get me? They make up parts of me. They’ve left little traces through their memory and are part of me now. And that’ll never change. Even when I’m old and decrepit. They will still be part of the person I have become.’
There was a brief pause while his small black swivel chair creaked a rhythm from beneath the strain as he leaned back to rest his feet on the edge of his desk, assuming the full philosophical position. The white tails of his work coat hung free behind him, dusting the floor as he spoke. The week had almost run out but it seemed that Stephen was just getting warmed up.
‘Do you not wonder at that sort of thing?’ he said. ‘They could be anywhere in the world. Right now. Doing anything. Anything at all. And yet there’s a tiny bit of them still tucked away in this little corner of Dublin. They could be dead, some of them. Imagine that? What about that?’
I could tell by the groan and squeal that emitted from his chair that he had turned to me. I looked up from the small collection of report forms in front of me. I had been trying to get them finished before the day was out and the week was up. Stephen didn’t seem to much care about that. He had his hands clasped behind his head which caused his elbows to create a halo around his face, and his mouth was ajar in expectance of my response. I fumbled for something to say.
‘Well… By that rationale, I suppose there must be a small part of you that is still with all those woman too,’ I replied. ‘And I don’t mean that in a vulgar way, mind you.’
‘That’s it!’ he said, swinging his legs off the desk so he could face me properly, one hand arching around to slap his thigh in order to exclaim the point even further. ‘That’s it exactly. Who knows what versions of me reside within them? Was I drunken? Was I charming? Was I kind?’
He paused briefly and glanced out the window while he pondered the other facsimiles of himself that were at large in the world beyond.
‘Who knows how they speak to themselves about our encounter? Or encounters, as the case may be,’ he said.
I flicked my pen on top of the report forms. They were not getting finished today. I pressed the lock button on my phone from where it lay at the right-hand side of my desk. It blossomed into life, but there was no word yet. In spite of myself I tried my computer too, shaking the mouse to breathe light back into the monitor so I could check my email. No word there either. But that was good at least. I knew that anything other than a phone call would mean bad news. It was almost half past four. It seemed unlikely now I’d hear anything before the weekend.
I took my glasses off and rubbed my eyes with thumb and fore-finger as Stephen rambled on.
‘And I’m not being crass,’ he said.
‘And I’m not trying to pry.’
‘But isn’t it a fascinating notion that for all those people we have known, we really have very little say over what part of us that they will remember. What small bit of us that they will take away and keep with them. It could be as small and meaningless as a having hair out of place, or a stain you didn’t notice that was on your shirt. I could be the stained shirt guy to somebody out there.’
I blinked the stars away from my eyes and slipped my glasses back on. Stephen was in full flow now and I really didn’t have the energy. I needed to get up and move. I needed the leave this place and stop his words pounding on my head like shrapnel. Sometimes his Friday afternoon thoughts of the week were a pleasant way of winding things down into our days away, but I didn’t have the energy to feign politeness or interest at the moment. I had to be wary though. If I timed things poorly Stephen would merely follow me around and resume pouring his words into my ear, continuing long after the overlow. The verbal torrent would then simply cascade onto the floor and crunch beneath our feet as we shuffled around the halls of this museum that they called an archive. If I wanted peace I would have to wait it out and choose my moment carefully.
‘Look at this place for instance’, he said. ‘Those little comments in the submission ledgers. Have you ever read one of them and wondered about the person who wrote it? Wondered who they were, what they looked like. They would have been sat somewhere scribbling out their submission sixty, seventy, eighty years ago. More even. But in that moment as you read their writing those two points in time are connected. It doesn’t matter if they are dead and gone. For that little while they are alive and vital within you.’
I rolled the dice.
‘Funny you should mention the ledgers’, I said.
‘Oh yeah? Why?’ he replied as he leaned forward to examine my thoughts.
‘I was going through some submissions from the fifties and whoever it was had penciled in a note along one of the margins that had nothing to do with any specimen or anything like that. It said, “Mulligans. Poolbeg St. 4.30pm. Green Dress.” I thought it was some archival assistant jotting down the details of a blind date. I could see him happy but nervous, already thinking ahead to the possibility of it, distracted enough that they had scrawled the note into the ledger without thinking. I’ve no idea who he was or what happened. But I got such a strong picture of him. Canvas trousers, white shirt, hair parted at the side and smelling of Bay Rum. It was strange. I could almost see him in the flesh.”
I stopped and a few moments of silence drew out while the ghost of that young man strode through our office and into Stephen’s ruminations. Eventually he drew breath and slapped his thigh again.
‘You see!’ he said.
‘This is exactly what I’m talking about.’
He swiveled away and swung his legs back onto the desk and his arms into the philosophical position.
‘You got that little relic and that person became real. Who knows what they were really like? Who cares? They are alive in you now. Just a little bit, but alive in you all the same.’
Now was the time. I had to hope that he would be too comfortable exploring the ramifications of my titbit to bother following me out of the office. I stood up.
‘I have to pop back into the stores’, I said.
Stephen turned his head to me. ‘Now? Why?’
‘I can’t read my own notes and I want to double check some specimen numbers while I still have them in mind.’
‘Want to come?’ I asked.
Stephen considered his current position. ‘Where?’ he shot back.
‘Mammals and Avian,’ I replied. That was upstairs and a longer journey from the office.
‘No. No. I’ll stay here I think.’
I gathered my pen and report forms, making sure to stuff my phone into my lab-coat pocket before I left. No one was going to call this late, but I still didn’t want to leave the chance that someone else might answer it, leaving me with a number of difficult questions that I’d prefer not to answer.
I stepped out into the great bunker-style stone corridor that ran the length of the building. You would just as easily have expected this place to be a wine-cellar or a catacomb rather than a museum archive, but here it was, literally crammed with millions of years of history currently deemed surplus to the requirements of the main museum collection. After so many years in this building the unusual charm of the place had ceased to leave much of an impression on me, but I felt a parting of ways was occurring and as I strode down the hall, my footsteps tracing a muffled echo against the walls, I began to look at my surroundings with fresh eyes.
Seven days previously I had sat down in a well-lit modern board room in a glass building halfway across town. I had a new shirt and polished shoes for the occasion. I looked smart but not over-dressed as I faced the three people tasked with selecting the suitable candidate. You want to come across as quiet but confident rather than over-eager in those situations.
As far as work was concerned I had taken the Friday afternoon off for a doctor’s appointment. I was rarely sick so this carried enough weight to forestall any awkward questioning. I didn’t want to spin out a long and complicated lie, I just wanted to be able to focus on the interview without fear of discovery. The interview board was made up of two women and one man, all older than me, but with that serious air of polite scrutiny. I talked for over forty minutes. I answered all their questions. I kept my body-language relaxed and open without being overly comfortable. They scribbled down their notes and afterwards we all shook hands warmly. I’d nailed it. I was sure of that. I knew then if I didn’t get the job it was not for lack of quality on my part. So I treated myself by forking out for a hardback edition of a new book I had really been waiting to get in paperback, and taking the rest of my stolen afternoon to a small, snug café where I indulged myself in the glow of a job well-done and the vast range of new life possibilities that spread out before me.
I felt for my phone in my pocket and checked it quickly as I used my shoulder to roll through one of the heavy doors that partitioned the archive. Still no word. The room was crowded with tall wooden cupboards that were painted red, each with a large number, stencilled in white, adorning the middle of the door. Every cupboard contained shelves, trays and drawers of thousands and thousands of geological specimens, a huge number of which I had examined, labelled and catalogued in the course of this digital overhaul of the museum’s stock system. I had once sat down and tried to calculate the number of hours I had spent in this very room, peering over rocks from different epochs and eras. I had to stop when the number became depressingly large comparative to me, but meaninglessly tiny when compared to a stone the size of my knuckle. I moved on through the room and out into the next.
On Monday morning the phone had rung. I almost had to swallow my heart back down again, it gave such a jump. I was lucky in so far as the store room I had been working in at that moment was empty of other people, filled instead only with the ghosts of stuffed mammals that stared down from behind glass cabinets or stacks on the wall. I fumbled to answer my phone while maintaining a calm in my voice that I did not feel. It was one of the female interviewers. She apologised for the short notice, but wanted to check my availability for a second interview on the coming Wednesday. I accepted as a strange mixture of excitement, disappointment and determination settled around my stomach, and I reeled my plans for the future in from a few years ahead back to just a few days.
Leaving the tall red sentinels in the room behind I entered into a small corridor that pulsed with the dull light from outside. To my right was a solid stone staircase that arced its way upwards, while to my left stood a great cream coloured fire-safe, within which the old submission ledgers lived.
It was in there that I had found the scribbled note, “Mulligans. Poolbeg St. 4.30pm. Green Dress.” I had lied to Stephen when I’d told him that I’d come across it the week previously. In actual fact in had been well over a year ago on a sunny, spring Tuesday morning as a shaft of light angled through the window above the fire-escape and my cotton glove glided over the page to feel the words beneath. I must have stared at that note for over ten minutes before I went back to the office to retrieve my phone so I could snap a quick picture. That picture now resided on a printed canvas in my apartment. I loved it. Sometimes this place could be the cold-edge of wonder, with human life naught but a smudge against the massive backdrop of geological upheaval and the long line of species that came before. But at that moment, it felt like accidental life had snuck in and recorded itself for the ages. Not cold and great, but small, trivial and bursting with warmth.
I looked at the safe briefly and considered opening it up to find the note, but instead turned right and continued on my path upstairs to nowhere in particular.
Wednesday morning had necessitated a sick-day from work. It couldn’t be helped. I’d spent the doctor excuse and like I said, I was rarely truly absent so I could get away with it. The interview board had been reduced to just two of the people from the first time, now the man and one of the women. The questions were different but the same, the same polite scrutiny, the same intense earnestness, another forty minutes and more glad handshakes to end. I felt good leaving. I had done well, if not quite so sure-footed as the first time around. They’d asked me where I saw myself in five years, and despite its routine nature within the interview process, I had somehow neglected to prepare for it. I’d spent plenty of time dreaming about the future without putting a name on exactly what that future was. I knew I didn’t want to simply say, still here, and I was acutely aware that progression within the job would be contingent on one of the two people sat across from me finding employment elsewhere, be that upwards or beyond. I’d stumbled and garbled some unconvincing reply, but it had been a minor blip on an otherwise assured performance. That’s all those things really are. Performances to a tune someone else is calling.
And now I found myself stood in my favourite room in the entire store waiting for their call. They had said a decision would be made by the end of the week, but that was looking unlikely now. I’d have to sit with this for the entire weekend and try to pretend to myself that I wasn’t anxious. The room was called the Aviary. Birds collected and stuffed into various different poses of fight, flight and repose filled the room. A lot of people didn’t like it, the open-beaked swooping posture of so many of the specimens could give an intimidating air of violence. Some people said they could almost hear the screeches of birds on the hunt or in aerial combat. I liked it though. At least it showed these animals as they once were, alive and full of instinct.
So much of my life had passed through these halls, and I’d enjoyed it mostly. When I’d first started here I had felt a little of the same excitement that had drawn me towards the profession in the first place, when as a child I would steal my father’s hat to play Indiana Jones, always preferring the exploration side of things to the swashbuckling finales. But recently I’d begun to wonder what impression could I possibly leave here in this vastness, surrounded by the collection of millennia? I had nothing to add to this mass of artefacts and I wanted badly to change that, if even only for myself. This building could have the strange effect of seeming outside of history while all the time history coursed through its very veins and arteries. I wanted to leave my mark, even if it was only less than a smudge.
I checked my watch. It read 5.15pm. Unattended, it was likely Stephen had snuck off early, so I made my way back through the halls to our small office in the heart of the archive.
When I poked my head around the door the office was empty. Stephen’s lab-coat lay draped over his chair. The soft grey rain still pattered against the window. I moved in and sat back at my desk. I took out my phone. Still nothing. I laid it on the desk and stared at the blank computer screen. I would check. Just in case. I would check my emails and then go home for the weekend.
I moved the mouse and the screen flicked on. I logged on to my personal email and my pulse quickened when I saw a reply nestled within. I opened it up and scanned the letter quickly to pick out the words I had hoped not to read, ‘unfortunately’, ‘unsuccessful’, ‘all the best’.
I sat back in my chair, it’s squeak dropping into the silent room like a ripple in a pond. I looked over Stephen’s desk, out the window to Dublin beyond and began to prepare for the week of work ahead.
Written by Adam O'Keeffe ©2015
Illustrations by Sinead Fox ©2015
NEXT UP - Duffy's of the Dublin Fruit Market / Monday 1st of June, 2015
These stories are inspired by, but in no way based on, the things we've been told. We want to make that clear. Anything contained within these pieces of fiction are just that, fiction. In here you will find tales of rich men, poor men, beggar men and thieves. None of them are real but all of them are alive