Never Look Back

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Chapter 9

Two drafting tables, each home to a mechanical arm, T-square, swing light, and a sheet of poster-sized paper, colonized the front half of the ATCO trailer when I reported as ordered the following morning. Robert Mansbridge practised old-school drafting preferring the feel of manual equipment. Tucked away at the far end of his sanctuary, a desktop computer sat in a quiet little alcove where I digitized drawings with Computer Aided Drafting software. Although office workers and the other draftsmen occupied the new building, Mansbridge preferred to work alone in the old trailer. I was the lone exception to his privacy.

Robert Mansbridge senior had been an architect as well. Like his father, Robert maintained strict work ethics. Standing six-feet tall, blessed with an aquiline nose that set off a pair of light-blue eyes, he conveyed an aristocratic presence. Thick, collar-length, wavy-brown hair, tweed jackets, and the creases in his virgin-wool slacks were as sharp and tidy as the ultra-hard tips in his mechanical drafting pencils. Most employees were intimidated by his stiff-lipped habits, but Mansbridge was neither arrogant nor a snob, just meticulous, a personality trait well suited to an architect. We had formed an instant working relationship when he discovered my computer aptitude and the commitment to details that accompanied it.

I enjoyed turning architectural drawings into slideshows; he enjoyed cheap labour. Robert paid me Mexican wages to digitize, and to prepare million-dollar job presentations. Beginning at the foundation, I took the buildings Robert designed through skeletal wireframes, past inner and outer walls with and without finishes, until textured skyscrapers, replete with gardens, light standards and parking lots, filled the screen. Our computer-generated slideshows lacked only animation. If he purchased updated hardware and current software, I might have provided a virtual presentation, but I may as well have gone to bent knee and prayed for a criminal pardon than expect him to pry open the rusty company safe. Mansbridge refused to toss out a drafting pencil unless only two inches remained, or to garbage an eraser until it was too stubby to hold without the aid of tweezers. Fifty years ago, his father bought a T-square his freshman year, and Robert not only kept it, he still used it.

“Robert?” I called out entering the trailer.

“Right on time.”

With an orange pencil was stuck behind one ear, Odera exited the computer alcove walking stiffly in my direction. Pulled back tight into a rope braid, except for two rogue ringlets framing her cheekbones that were allowed to romp at the wind’s pleasure, her long, strawberry-blonde hair looked wind-proof. Yet, those carefree ringlets conflicted with a self-portrait that warned, ‘Do not trespass! I am fearfully carefully held together.’

When she came within six feet of me, Odera struck a rigid pose. A leather-encased toe tapped erratically against the linoleum. Hands trembled where they rested on her hips. Cheeks showed rosy and flushed. She took shallow breaths. Her nervousness nearly bled over to me.

“Where were we? Oh yeah, you just finished telling me to take a hike, and then you rudely turned your back on me.”

“Robert’s not here?”

“Daddy’s doing site visits.”

“Uh, fine. I’ll come back, then.”

The drafting trailer was off-limits to all, except to me and, naturally, to his daughter, I remembered all at once. The absence of people sent me to the door. Arguing twice with the boss’s daughter in as many days was an unhealthy career choice.

“Wait! Oh no, you don’t, Mister. You owe me an apology for several counts of rudeness.”

My hand, which had reached for the doorknob, fell back as the parental sting in her voice registered. It triggered my nature to stand my ground, even if it was to my detriment to do so. Our universe became the space we occupied. Looking down, I engaged her cobalt-blue eyes and stood up straighter so that I towered over her and deepened my voice. Avenge yourself first, I thought.

“Several counts? Maintaining a tally, are you? Of course, you’re keeping track, that’s what bean counters do.”

“I’m not an accountant but I do oversee the office. And a charitable count is the two I mentioned.” Not to be outdone, she straightened her spine ― her breathing deepened and her toe had stopped tapping linoleum. “Repeat after me, ‘I’m ― sorry ― for ― being ― a ― rude ― jerk.’”

“Best go sharpen your pencil if you persist in badgering me. You’ll be making a profession of it soon enough,” I told her.

“Apologise for walking away from our unfinished conversation, and for being an obnoxious jackass. I’ll deal with the others as they arise.”

“I owe you an apology?”

Odera fired back, “Was I unclear? Is English your second language?”

“I heard you the first time,” I told her suppressing a grin.

“Good. I don’t have all day to await the arrival of your derelict manners.”

“I should have been more explicit in my directions where you could put that demand when you made it yesterday,” I mused devilishly.

“You commit that transgression at the risk of having your finger bent in half!” Deep blue radiance brimmed her pupils. “You were rude yesterday. I see that nothing has changed. There’s work to do. Admit you were wrong and apologize.”

“Take a deep breath and wait for it,” I advised, enjoying her high-spiritedness and snappy returns. “Did I invite your prying eyes?; your unwanted intrusion?; your...”

“If curiosity has become a capital offence, then shoot me. It would be less painful than having to endure your gentle grace and manly manners. You probably think being an ass is charming. Apologise and I’ll forget it happened.”

The lady championed a taste for the ironic in the best Marc Twain rebuke; I have forever admired Samuel Clemens.

“Should I be honoured that you’re willing to forgive a poor dumb bastard like me? Get off your high horse…Lady. Too many others occupy that pedestal of moral authority for you to join those regal heights.”

Unadorned lips pressed together until they pursed. She took a half step forward, her chin tilted upwards. Verbal fervour filled my breast, awaiting a response I might shred. Our words were like swords to be parried; our arguments ripostes with which to overcome the opponent. Along the way, I had forgotten what we were arguing about, only that I was enjoying myself. Right, I had been rude and obnoxious. Really? Fine.

A Scottish lilt rang in her voice, “Sure I am that you enjoy delivering speeches, inspiring as they be, but can you stomach a wee reply without scampering off?”

One hand stayed connected to a hip; the other wagged a finger at me while her eyes crinkled at the corners. Another half step forward put her adjacent the window. Sunlight splashed her torso, throwing a shadow across the room. The computer beeped. Reds and oranges ignited in her hair when she moved through the sunbeams. Flushed skin matched the hue of those curly ringlets. I wondered what her lips tasted like.

Meeting her infuriated gaze, whose depths deepened with passionate anger, I declared nobly, “Thus far, I’ve wallowed miserably in the desolation of your words, having yet to hear anything original. Dazzle away.”

“Oooh! You mule-headed, beastly man. Close your mouth for three seconds and I’ll finish unless you fear to hear the truth. Though I supremely doubt you capable of silence!”

Quietness wedded her words. Eyes locked onto mine, Odera stepped closer until peppermint-scented breath blew in my face. Too loud to speak over, a deep-throated diesel engine passing by the window signalled the end of round one. An aura of indignation surrounded her, while in her eyes dark flecks sprinkled the outer edges of gunmetal blue irises. Was it my imagination or could I see myself dwelling within those surfaces, like Narcissus finding his reflection in the waters of the Lake Goddess? My world expanded. It became more interesting and fuller somehow. Lost for a second in that reflection, I came back into myself from where I had strayed.

Had she asked a question? The truck engine faded. She fired a volley.

“Did it ever occur to that Neanderthal brain that I wanted to impart a friendly ‘Thank you’ for the other week?; that I intended to invite you out for a coffee?; that I noticed that you stayed to yourself. And perhaps, just maybe, you’d enjoy company over seclusion. And that by taking an interest in your writing we might start a conversation. I was wrong. You weren’t ostracised. The guys banished you and barred the lunchroom door behind you. Convince me that I’m wrong! Show me that you possess a morsel of human decency. Dare to be polite.”

Those meteoric words penetrated my stubbornness. My public façade melted at that soul-depth truth. Prison had soured a substantial portion of my humanity. A large chunk of what I once took pleasure in, the ability to love, to trust, to laugh, to enjoy other people, no longer existed. I thrived on conflict and withered in social circles. The person I was today had little in common with the young man who entered a maximum-security facility so long ago. Anger and hate had whittled away at my soul, crippled my heart from caring too deeply, from neither trusting without cynic suspicion nor seeking the company of others.

Odera’s assessment forced me to acknowledge that she offered poignant insight. Unexpectedly, her eyes widened. Acceptance invaded those blue depths. Empathy and understanding flowed out from her. In the heartbeat needed to cloak my eyes with an unreadable expression, to hide that I mourned who I no longer was, grieving what I had surrendered to prison’s eternal beast, an intangible quality crossed the distance separating us. Building in those empathetic eyes, mingling amongst sadness and despair, we shared recognition and acceptance. It unnerved me.

“You’re right. I spoke rudely. It was not my intention to lash out. It’s…it’s just the way I respond; nothing personal.” The moment passed. I began to doubt it ever happened. “I owe you an apology.”

“I’m partly at fault. I had no right to interrupt your lunch.”

“Fine. I’ll be going then.”

“Wait,” she said and tugged my coverall sleeve.

Though her fingernails glared red and raw, silver sparkles adorned them. Decorating those nails was like ordering three Big Macs, large fries, an ice cream, and then a diet coke. She removed her hand and tucked it beneath her arm while I pretended not to have noticed.

She said, “I’m having trouble following portions of the code you wrote. It would have been prudent to have included subroutine descriptions.”

“You’re familiar with source code?”

“I put this system together when I graduated Queen’s with a Masters in architectural computer design. I really could use your assistance to explain some of those routines.”

“I didn’t mean to sound surprised. Your father never said anything about you being a programmer. Not that he must, of course.”

Why did Mansbridge pay me to do his computer work when his daughter was more qualified?

“I recently returned from a leave of absence.” Her eyes grew dark and her shoulders slumped. “Now, about those routines. Can we go over them?”

Did I do that? Had my remark belittled her? Why did she take leave of absence? Was it maternity leave? Not that. She would not be sad. Unless there were baby troubles. A sick kid perhaps. No wedding ring in sight. Not even a faded line where one used to be. I tore my gaze away from her soft-sad eyes and let the door close, inexplicably nervous, inexplicably drawn to her.

“Which routines?” I explored, sorting out how we had gone from combatants to co-workers.

Baby concerns. Ex-husband troubles. None of my business. Keep marching. Don’t stop.

“I’ll show you.” At my hesitation, Odera asked, “I need clarification before we head to the TechShop.”

“TechShop?”

“Umm, hmm. But not until you explain the scribble that you call code,” she said with battle-teasing eyes and walked into the alcove where the computer sat.

In spite of feeling uneasy in our solitude, my eyes tracked her calves, working upwards to the hypnotic dip and sway of her hips. Attractive lines for having popped out a kid. Valuable company assets. Wait. No evidence of hip spread, which might rule out a child, which cancelled maternity leave. Again, I caught myself thinking what if. This tomato was off the menu, I reminded myself. Yet, in the background of my mind, I continued to run scenarios to explain her leave of absence and return to work. There was something there. A clue I had not noticed. Waiting out of reach, buried in the back of my brain where I felt it scratching to be noticed.

“Exactly what chicken scribble were you referring to? I’ve scratched so many different tracks,” I declared walking closer enough to read the monitor.

“This.” She pointed to a section of coding. “Have a seat. It shouldn’t work, but it does. You poked into memory, but I haven’t discovered how you called data into a function outside coding parameters.”

“Oh, that. I poked into the coprocessor to bypass one of the Read-Only instructions,” I said pulling a second chair over.

“You changed a ROM instruction set? That’s not supposed to be possible.”

“Not changed it; avoided it through a function. Each time the program turned the graphic in 3D, it warped. The video card wasn’t designed to run a 3D presentation on a 2D monitor. Rather than suffer warping, that interrupt statement leapfrogs the operation to the function with an error trap and then flips it back.”

Odera finished my thought, “And because the call originated from a poke into protected memory and not the subroutine, you usurped normal parameters. Creative. This second routine, then, accesses the video card, redefines the parameters and hands it back to be re-calculated.”

“Yup,” I replied and self-consciously moved my arm out of reach when our elbows brushed.

I dislike being touched. It was a prison thing.

Watching out of the corner of her eye, she pretended to ignore the withdrawal of my arm. Wary doe eyes tracked my movement, logged each time I shifted in my seat. We were hyper-vigilant of the other, guarded in our body posture while trying to disguise our caution. Prisoners performed a similar dance when they rested their backs against walls to prohibit flanking manoeuvres, noted hands in pockets that might indicate a hidden weapon, watched for eyes that showed too much interest, relentlessly scanned rooms to ascertain mood and to identify hunting behaviours. The military also trained personnel to pay attention to detail, to notice surroundings, to formulate tactical strategies for aggression, defence and escape. Hyper-vigilance was my normal state of being. Odera shared that attitude.

Intriguing.

“How did you compensate for the camera view of a two-dimensional screen without suffering distortion? That, I know for sure is impossible, yet you did it anyway.”

“I tricked the eye.”

Wearing a challenging half grin, I reclined in my chair waiting for her to put the pieces together, free to enjoy the elegant symmetry where her neck flowed into her shoulders. Odera ran the program noting how the graphic maintained its 3D image without warping. Her brow furrowed. The building, a compilation of horizontal and vertical steel girders, smeared out of focus when she zoomed in for a tighter shot.

“You turned it into an object. By doing so, you restrict editing,” she noted, pegging the strength and the weakness of my half-solution.

“Right. Robert doesn’t understand why he must load one file to view and then another to edit. He tried to edit on the fly at his last presentation but fouled up when the graphic refused to modify. Since then, I plugged in a patch to load a Work-In-Progress file when he exits viewing mode that can be edited on site, and then automatically recompiles itself for further viewing.”

“With updated hardware and current software, none of this would be necessary.”

“I’ve mentioned that to him,” I said.

Gravel crunching beneath boots outside the window earned my attention. Someone passed by the door. Footsteps faded into the distance. Had Robert returned from his site visits? Who else knew that we were alone?

“But he won’t budge. Oh my God, he still uses a slide ruler. One of these days I’ll find him shoeless, sliding wooden beads up and down the rods of an abacus with his toes, slide ruler in hand for scale conversion.” I shuffled my feet smiling at that zany image. “The rest I pieced together. Your coding is unorthodox but effective.”

“There’s something to be said for not knowing that something is impossible. And I can be stubborn about accepting defeat.”

“Some people might call that focussed.”

Those honest euphemisms, as I would learn, expertly highlighted my numerous shortcomings using gross understatement couched in reasonable terms.

“Subroutine descriptions would have helped. Once or twice I forgot the what-and-why of certain portions of the code myself,” I agreed.

“Especially Pascal. That’s the worst language in the world for remembering unlabelled subs. I’ll be so happy when we update this system.” Pausing, eyebrows scrunched as she declared, “I’m starved. Let’s head to the TechShop and then grab a bite afterward. Company treat.”

“Beware of those bearing gifts.”

“We won’t be back in time for lunch. It’ll be take-out. You know Dad’s rule, if you’re driving, you’re eating on the roll.”

“Tell that to Troy. Helen thought the horse was cute when it rolled in.”

“You know, Bruce, there is such a thing as a no strings lunch.”

“If he were alive, Damocles would disagree.”

Odera fired me a wry look, probably picturing Damocles dining beneath a sword suspended above him by a single strand of hair.

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