The Footstep Thief

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Chapter 10

The gloaming had started gathering outside my window. I picked my bag up from under my desk and started gathering the things I needed for work. Although I tried to ignore them, the sounds from the lounge room still percolated into my room. Apparently Kayl had finally arrived with the food, for the voices of seriousness had now become ones of laughter, accompanied by the tinkering of cups and plates (although my promised offering had yet to materialise). The thought I had to pass through them all en route to the front door left me queasy.

After a minute of careful deliberation, I decided my only option was to quietly open my door, silently slide down the hallway with my back against the wall, until I reached the laundry-cum-bathroom. This I’d then sneak through and so reach outside, much like Audrey Hepburn used bathrooms in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, only I could use the door instead of climbing out the window. From there I’d keep to the side of the house, remembering to duck as I passed the lounge room window, then slink between the shadows of the trees to my car. As I spun the plan around in my mind, looking for flaws and adding the occasional somersault roll, a commanding knock sounded on my door. It burst open before I could answer.

“There you are, darling. Kayl’s taking so long making tea I knew you must be awake.”

“Gillian!” If I’d known surprise could drive away all the tiredness I’d have started using it as a remedy long before this. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, I find this little group so fascinating.” Radiating superior knowledge, Gillian settled on the end of my unkempt bed. “Besides, it was the perfect opportunity to bring the photos in for you. I knew you’d just love to see them.”

“What photos would they be?” I asked, shuffling some things into my bag. Perhaps Gillian would take the hint.

“Of Paula and Jason’s holiday in Europe, silly. Surely I mentioned them the other night. I know they’ve been back a while, but when I saw Paula and told her you’d come up here she suggested I show them to you. Jason was presenting at some conference in Rome – the guest speaker, really – but it seems they had some time for sightseeing. I knew how much his success must mean to you, and I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t take this chance to show them to you.”

“I really have to get ready for work,” were the words I should’ve said, but knowledge bound my tongue and I could not speak. How could Gillian even begin to think I’d be interested in looking at photos of my ex-boyfriend travelling with his new love, along with a running commentary of their every move? Did I so wallow in despair that everyone thought I enjoyed it?

“Don’t worry, I won’t keep you long. I know you have to get to work. Besides, I can always leave the album if you like,” Gillian murmured before she began purring over the photos in excruciating detail. Paula and Jason in Rome. Paula and Jason in Florence. Paula and Jason waiting for a train. Paula and Jason outside yet another castle, or ruin, or museum, or something. Every photo with its own a convoluted story of happiness.

Interestingly, though, Gillian made no mention of Jason coming up here, or of having seen him up here. A social do at the university big enough to make it to the Sydney social pages – surely Gillian had been there. Or was that when Gillian saw Paula, who I now recognised as the willowy brunette decorating Jason’s arm in that newspaper photo? It was all becoming a bit silly really, these secrets of who had seen whom, and when, and not talking about it.

“And don’t you just love Paula’s earrings in this one?”

“I didn’t notice.” What I did notice, however, was that even though Jason remained casually but impeccably dressed, his image had changed. He looked no longer like a movie star on holiday, but instead like an average man who’d hauled himself above the masses by simple hard work, an achievement anyone could emulate. An Everyman for today. A hint of podge had settled around his waist, so subtle as to look airbrushed, while his face lacked its usual sun-kisses. The reflection staring back at me had evolved into a studious hard-worker.

“Jason bought them for her in Venice,” continued Gillian’s twittering. “Which is incredibly sweet, considering he doesn’t like pierced ears.” Gillian paused and, after an obvious glance at my own pierced ears, casually flicking her bangs away from her own earlobes. Her hair colour had changed from a few days ago, but I made no comment. “That’s why I’ve never got mine done. You can always trust Jason’s taste.”

“I really need to get going,” I said, standing up. If I had a knife it would readily find a home in this girl’s heart. So she would know, for once, how someone else felt.

“Listen, before you go, sweetie,” Gillian said, grabbing my arm to hold me still, “I’ve been thinking. It’s about time you finally went somewhere with this career of yours.” She released her hold and took off her glasses. As she leant towards me, Gillian plastered a look both gentle and concerned crookedly across her face. It failed completely to cover her eyes. “Everyone’s so worried about you,” she continued. “Honestly, darling, we talk of nothing else. What with Davy – you still haven’t organised anything, have you? – and this waste of a job. It’s career suicide. No wonder you’re drifting. Everyone else from your year, and now from the years below, well, they’re just passing you by.”

“Drifting? What’s wrong...”. I should’ve seen this coming. Instead, so chronically tired, I’d ignored the wall of ice towering over me in the vain hope it might somehow melt away. Now a patina of cracks stretched over the surface, and any moment the wall would shatter, burying me alive in shards of blue ice. In vain I’d hoped someone might save me, an Ivanhoe to my Rebecca, wearing my favour on his sleeve. Or a Robin Hood to my Maid Marion (but not Errol Flynn, who would merely replace one Jason with another. Maybe a Douglas Fairbanks, black and white and silent.)

“I’m just repeating what everyone is saying. Jason and I are planning to sit down and have a serious talk with you when he’s next up here. But listen, I have an appointment to see Professor Timbers next week, but I’ll try to chat to Mr Webb today, just informally you know. I really can’t foresee any problems.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Oh, darling, that’s my point. You department comes under our jurisdiction, and come next month, I plan on becoming your mentor. Unofficially, of course.”

“My mentor – but you have no experience in what I do! It’ll be a waste of your time!” I had to shout to be heard over the crashing ice.

“Oh, experience is never wasted, darling. I thought I’d try and catch up with Mr Johnson today. After all, he’s also on the panel.”

At that moment my door opened and Kayl walked in, bearing a tray. My bedroom had become a public thoroughfare.

“Sorry, Steph,” he drawled, ignoring Gillian. “A slight delay in deliveries.”

“Oh, Kayl, thankyou,” I answered, embarrassed by the relief in my voice.

“Did you remember my yoghurt?” Gillian asked Kayl but sitting on my bed all the while. She turned back to me. “Fruit and yoghurt. I find it the best thing to eat if you need to lose a little weight.”

“I wasn’t sure when you had to leave,” Kayl continued, “so I’ve packed up some dinner for you to take as well. Gillian, sweetie,” he purred, “I think we’re about to start again. Coming?” He held the door open and smiled me, an I-know-I’m-the-cavalry smile, there-is-no-need-to-thank-me-for-rescuing-the-little-woman smile. Not an Ivanhoe, but equally as effective.

“You forgot the album,” I quickly added as Gillian finally rose from my unmade bed. “It will just get lost in here.”

“I understand,” Gillian condescended. “Especially as Paula and Jason are now engaged – oh, don’t tell anyone,” she added, laying a hand on Kayl’s arm as she passed him in the doorway. “It hasn’t been formally announced yet.” She paused and turned her arrogant, kohl-rimmed eyes on me. “We’ll speak about this later, darling. Oh, would you look at your shoes,” she said, all in one breath. “I had no idea your foot was so small.”

The door closed behind my two visitors. That’s what Jason had said. The first time we’d... About my feet. Being so small. I’d been wearing black stockings.

My plan to sneak out via the laundry reduced to impotent dreams. I instead made a vague effort to tidy my bed, then piled some things in my bag. All I wanted now was to get out of the house. I could grab something to eat along the way – leaving Kayl’s offering for the wee hours – and even have a shower once there.

I picked up Dave’s box of stones, gently wrapped it in an old shirt, and popped it in my bag. Although I tried to ignore them, the last sounds of bible study still reached me; the gathering of cups, the tinkering of the washing up in the kitchen, the good-byes and blessings and air kisses happening at the door. Cars started in the street and hummed away into the darkness. Shoes pattered down footpath as someone sang a rock-hymn.

As I stared out my window into the gathering darkness, I listened to Bradley and Louise walking around the house, picking up the last glasses, chatting to one another. It sounded like a few others had stayed behind, but I couldn’t hear Kayl’s voice amongst them. The house creaked a little as it readied itself for sleep.

With a bravery known only to those ancient Christians sent to face the lions, I opened my door and made it out the front before the few who remained could do more than wave an hello.

By luck (or maybe for once the gods were smiling) I found a perfect car park at work, near a side entrance which remained open after five; for tonight I could avoid the tunnel. After a day of forbidding heat, the stench alone drove most away, yet Dom might still be lurking there for whatever reason, in that way all evil men lurk in horror movies.

My new detail from security proved part of the reason for my perfect car park. A text message informed me where to park, (I had no idea how security got my number) and there waited a man in a transport van, ready to escort me across the campus. I didn’t recognise him; possibly a cousin of the cousin of Henryk. A few others also waited , and we were dropped at our respective spots – or cars, for the lucky few returning home. With a nod and a reminder to be in the same place tomorrow night, I was deposited outside Building C, and the van drove off into the night.

Now I had time to kill; what with leaving early, and not needing to circle the campus to find a park, followed by a lift across the grounds, I had ample opportunity to reheat my takeaway Thai before logging on. (Quite a few menus from various takeaways slept in my glove box.)

On reaching the labs, however, I decided on a cup of tea instead. Kayl had packed some herbal tea-bags along with the other offerings, and this seemed an ideal time to experiment and try one. Ignoring the paint smell, I plonked my bag on the table and began rummaging though it in search of the elusive tea. Somewhere I also had some cream for my hands and cracked lips. In a former life I’d once rocked up to Uni with three lip glosses and no pen. Now my one lip gloss was unusable, coated with the grime which collects at the bottom of an always used bag.

Cup of tea in hand, I still had ten minutes before I had to log on. I didn’t realise I’d snuck out of the house quite so early. Now I had a technical window, where I could be myself for a few moments. Where else but the wrought iron balcony; a perfect place to seek some calmness in this maelstrom which had swallowed me in the past few days. The balcony was a place to hide, and not see anything of the world – except the cupola.

To my delight, the light of the cupola filled the night. Another chance to find the Grey Nurse. I leant against the rail and inhaled the vapours of mint and cinnamon rising from my tea.

“So, is there any particular reason you haven’t told me about Dom?” Dave asked as soon as I leant on the railing.

“Hi,” I answered. “Was wondering if you’d be around tonight.”

“No, well, I guess we’ve both been busy. Which probably answers my question.” My brother took a crimson cigarette from his pocket and, popping it in his mouth, looked at me over his cupped hands as he lit the cigarette and started smoking. “Can’t hurt me now, surely,” he said in reply to my surprised look.

“Lucky I didn’t bury you next to Mum and Dad. They’d have a fit.”

Dave smiled. “For that I am literally – and eternally – grateful. Funny how they’d notice such evils as smoking, but not that our world was falling apart.”

“Dave, why did you do it?”

Dave puffed out a cloud of smoke. “I knew you’d notice the oil. The police didn’t.”

“A giant gum tree along a straight stretch. The coroner was an idiot.”

“That’s their job. Being an idiot is a prerequisite. Besides, you left long before I did.”

“What on earth do you mean? You moved out years before me.”

“Come on, you’ve been living on some different plane of existence to the rest of us for years. One higher than any of us could hope to reach. It drove Jason absolutely batty when his mercurial force failed to drag you down to his level. And you didn’t even notice. Not to mention Gillian. She’s still trying, though. Got to admit, the kid’s got stamina.”

“I still don’t get why you ever went out with her.”

Dave took a long pull on his cigarette and casually blew out the smoke as if he was Cary Grant. My goofy brother, who’d never been elegant in his whole life. “I didn’t,” he said. “Not really. I mean, she just started hanging around. To be honest, I think it was more to do with trying to seeing Jason after the two of you broke up. Next thing I know, she’s organising my social life and reading my mail.” He tapped his cigarette, and some ash drifted through the iron beneath our feet to the ground far below. “She had this annoying habit of picking up any thing I was writing – a letter, work, whatever – and correcting it. That’s why I didn’t write to you before, well, you know, well, as it was all happening, in case she found it first.”

“She’s still trying to get me to achieve closure. Whatever that is.”

Dave just grunted and blew a double smoke ring.

“That’s quite impressive,” I said. “You don’t even cough.”

“I’m dead, honey. I don’t even breathe.”

“Oh. I didn’t think of that.” The smoke rings drifted by on the breeze. I wondered how Dave could actually blow them if he didn’t breathe. My awful habit of over thinking things.

“You know,” my brother said, interrupting my musings, “I think what aggravated Jason the most was your quiet love. The stories of his excellence were meant to send you into this adoring flap. Like most people, he never sees those things which happen quietly. Such as the perfect girlfriend he lost. Everything has to be loud and dramatic, which, of course, makes everyone watching think he’s doing something incredibly difficult.”

“Thanks, but that doesn’t make it any easier.”

“No, I suppose not. Still, I hate to admit it, Steph, but Dad was right about one thing. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Oh, and by the way, those anti-depressants you’re taking. Can cause both an increase in appetite and fluid retention. So, unless you want to add to your misery, it probably is time to start feeling better.”

“You mean, get closure, move on, achieve completion, and so on.”

“Something like that.”

A smile, and Dave was gone. I still hadn’t found the chance to ask him how much it hurt when his car crumpled against a tree.

Unlike the rest of the campus, the lab was deserted, for most sensible people fled the place at the coming of night. The smell of the new paint now not only hung in the air, it’d clawed its way into every fibre of the place. The front room still wasn’t finished, and pictures and furniture from further down the now mingled with the disarray. Bradley’s promise of getting something done proved empty.

I walked over to my pigeonhole and, after dumping my bag on the floor, pulled out the pile which had collected since my last visit. Today had obviously been the day to deliver all that mail which had gone astray. Two pay-slips, some papers to be signed, the weekly newsletter, four flyers and a few ads; things to read at three in the morning when I could find nothing else to do, then throw away.

Amidst it all, however, I found an official letter in an official envelope. Half afraid it might be another missive from Gillian, I ripped it open and pulled out a sheet of paper with an impressive letterhead. It came from the Dean, summoning me to see him in a few days time.

The Dean? I racked my brains. I’d never met the man before, and although he was head of the department where I now worked his name meant nothing to me. Why would he bother about a nobody working nights? Surely Gillian’s threat had been empty posturing only – this can’t be about her becoming my mentor. Or had she really moved that quickly – but why?

I kicked my bag on the floor towards the table where the handover book waited. On opening it, my night improved even further. Some scraps of paper fluttered to the ground, each bearing some jobs for me to do. My only contact with most of those who worked here, and they couldn’t even be bothered to write legibly in the book. Surely some of these day people had once done nights. What if I to leave notes about things left to do in the morning in undecipherable scraps? I stuffed the bits of paper into my filo-fax, picked up the book and my bag, and headed towards the lab. What if I wrote these notes in limericks?

A silly young lass worked last night

Who kept waking up in a fright

She wrote on a scrip


On which what? Was not very hip sprang to mind – but then that left only one line for the Grey Nurse.

My mail and filofax in one hand, my bag dangling from the other, I entered the lab and stood a moment blinking in the harshness of the fluorescent lights. No one had bothered, it seemed, to turn any off as they left. Having no idea where to start, I dropped everything on the desk, then pulled my cardigan from my bag and pulled it tight, as if it were a doona or cuddly blanket full of comfort. I sat down, unscrewed my fountain pen, and pulled some blank paper towards me. I then fished around in my bag and pulled out a half-empty packet of tic-tacs and put them on the desk where they lay within easy reach. Working nights are all about rituals. They help me feel both busy and purposeful.

After a few moments I walked over to the far wall and switched off most of the lights. My eyes were instantly grateful. The moonlight fell through the far window, and the mindless hum of the air-conditioning filled the room.

This place was my home now. More than Bradley’s house, where I would be forever a temporary visitor, no matter how longed I stayed. Once I dimmed the lights, the people of the day were banished, and I owned this place, and it owned me. In the town, I would forever be a visitor, but – unlike staying at Bradley’s – an unnoticed one. Still, I liked walking the streets of this town, past the butchers and the deli on the corner, with the Laundromat tucked into a side street beside St. Vincent de Paul’s. Outside of the one shopping centre there were a few dress shops (one with lovely hats), and a few restaurants. Cafes abounded, there were three supermarkets and two art galleries. The local history museum had been relegated to down by the river. I could gaze into the windows of all these places with complete anonymity, and make promises I knew I’d never keep, and dream, and be safe in being unknown. I’d been here long enough for the streets to go from foreign to a place I could walk, hands deep in my pockets, a moving image of James Dean.

As I explored the streets of the town, I became aware of how many layers of lives were lived all around me, flowing into so many streams. I just pottered in the shallows, oblivious to all the options. I knew about them (didn’t everyone?) but only in a theoretical sort of way. I never thought anyone really lived them. So much for my liberal education. I felt like a twig left over from a game of pooh sticks, stuck in a muddy pond.

My mind wandered through all those labyrinths I’d ever wandered, trying to work out when this mess started. I’d wandered blindly for so long I’d lost all sense of direction; how many times had I stumbled past the entrance, the only way out without realising it? It was too late to retrace my footsteps, even if I could see them.

With a shrug of my shoulders, I sat back down at my desk and began leafing through the scraps of paper comprising my list of things to do, comparing them with the other entries in The Book. Most seemed to encompass getting things ready for a morning tutorial. I secretly hoped that one day, should I play my cards right, I might one day be promoted to Thing, rather than being three steps removed in the darkness of a lab at night. I remembered from my own student days the lecturer demonstrating an experiment at the front of the lab, while in a little room behind him an assistant or two readied everything, ready to slide out through a hatch in the wall. All we ever saw of these assistants, however, was a hand appearing and disappearing: The Thing of the Chemistry Labs.

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