The Footstep Thief

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Chapter 15

As instructed by my now nightly escort, I parked at the top of the university and waited under the designated bright light. After a few minutes my wagon arrived. Instead of the last night’s minivan, this night’s chariot was a cross between a golf buggy and a jeep, as if we were about to set off across the savannas of Africa in search of lions. Another place I’ve dreamt of but never been; I don’t even own a passport. Why should I? To do so would imply having a plan.

Besides, thinking about safaris dated back to when I had dreams, and enjoyed that luscious time just as I fell asleep. I’d drift along self-made reveries, my ability to direct proceedings slipping as I tumbled into a slumber as soft as my pillows. Now I preferred my nightmares to the tormenting memories which filled these moments. If only I could discover drugs, or alcohol. Now when not working (and often even when I do), I toss and turn and blame evolution for the existence of thought. Evolution is blind, the mystery of consciousness coming as an unseen consequence of our ancestors pushing themselves ever further to outwit a sabre-tooth or learning to cook over a fire, to hunt as a group and begin to talk. From thought comes awareness, giving us knowledge of existence, of a both future and past. Our ancestors coped by creating hand-prints to accompany the animals they painted on cave walls, but now our worries encompass mortgages and the existence of angels and how to become famous.

My cart ambled across the campus (or did it trundle, rolling me to the guillotine? Surely this was the hour of night when the Scarlet Pimpernel discarded his foppishness to ride forth to save us. Anthony Andrew as the Scarlet Pimpernel, of course, not Leslie Howard, whom I never could warm to as either a romantic or an adventurous lead.) Before any rescue arrived, however, the jeep-cum-buggy stopped to let the few remaining passengers alight at a car park. I was the only person going the wrong way, back into the uni.

I leant out the side of the buggy and looked up at the night sky. Stars sailed across a heaven washed clean by the earlier storm. All traces of scraggly clouds had gone. Beyond a distant building rose the orange tip of the moon. A perfect night to see the big animals of the plains – or so I’d read. Fairytales and legends are made from the dangers of the night, when to move from the safety of the village invites death. Even village walls can’t always guarantee protection.

Under these stars, somewhere, lurked Sir Dom.

Decadent as it was to be driven, I already missed my nightly walk to the labs and the sense it given me of being one with the campus. I’d always felt safe, although now, sitting in the back of this buggy, I could see why Security abhorred anyone walking alone. Despite the rising moon pools of darkness lurked everywhere, lapping around islands of poorly-lit buildings. Occasional spotlights merely made the darkness harsher. Away from the buildings lay small copses of tress and swathes of open fields. All it needed now was a mist to plunge the place straight into a horror movie; yet I’d seen and felt none of this when walking the paths on my own and taking my nightly shortcuts. I’m sure characters in fairy-tales and morality plays felt the same.

A chorus of frogs greeted me as I alighted outside the labs. I waved my escort goodbye as the van trundled away. A different security man acted as chauffeur tonight, and I wondered if he, too, was distantly related to Henry. No one else was around. A warm breeze caressed my shoulders as I turned and wiped my card through the slot by the door.

Even walking through the building to the labs I saw no one. Once enclosed inside, my night passed quickly. Quite a collection of jobs had been left for me; what with gathering and sending results, juggling machines, checking on some animals who needed feeding or their feed removed at set hours, adding various medications and isotope laden dyes to hopefully the right water bowls, not to mention logging a backlog of specimens from the vet labs (which also ran a clinic) and entering them to be analysed, I was blessed with no time for thought. The tune of alarms kept me busy, reminding me it was time for yet another thing to be done, or measured, or recorded, or stopped.

During the course of the day a new bundle of chairs, plus two un-connecting parts of a couch, had been stacked to one side of the main lab, right near a machine which demanded constant attention. When not squeezing past this new driftwood or climbing over it (this proved the quicker route) much of my night had passed clambering over rolled-up carpets and negotiating boxes. As I’d slept away the day a room down the corridor had been painted and another stripped, and the permeating smell from the fresh paint merely reinforced the odours lingering from the earlier work. With the passing hours my perennial headache returned. Glancing at my watch and realising the hour, I decided on a cup of tea, ignorant that making my way to the kettle in its new home would prove a feat of mountaineering.

A small TV slept in a corner. As I waited for the kettle to boil, I flopped down on a forlorn couch and turned the television on. It looked so old I half expected the screen to be black and white, and once warmed up it offered me the choice of one channel. As telemarketing for some abdominizer filled the screen, I simply passed out. Twenty minutes later (confirmed by my faithful watch), I woke with a start. It took a minute to remember where I was. A power nap; after almost a year of perpetual nights, I was beginning to perfect them.

Finally making my cup of tea, I sidled around the obstacles back to my desk with spilling only a few drops. I sat for a moment trying to decide what movie to watch as I worked, but for once I didn’t feel like any company. Instead, I put my music onto shuffle, took a sip of my tea, and turned my attention back to my work. A mundane snowstorm quickly covered me. Boring things to steal time from me, but demanding no thought. It took maybe another hour for the work to grind to a halt. Emerging from my depths I found the remnants of a cold cup of tea within hand’s reach. Beside it rested a few, mostly stale biscuits, reminders of a moment of weakness spent scrummaging through the debris of the half-empty jar while my brain, addled from my nap, once more proved too weak to stop me.

I ran a hand over my eyes and blinked a few times. I’d got as far as buying some eye drops, but always forgot to bring them into work. Pushing back my chair, I clambered over to the far wall and turned off the main lights. Usually I left on only one desk light and a few down-lights near the door (heavily dimmed), but tonight it was so awkward actually getting to the switches I’d kept both my corner and its surrounds glowing as if it were still daytime. I turned down the fluorescent glare until only a few dim lights remained.

Adjusting to the new gloom, I noticed a red light flashing on the other side of the room. I’ no idea how long it’d been flashing, unnoticed in the brightness of the artificial day. The path to it proved relatively obstacle free, and reaching the blinker I discovered it belonged to the fax-come-printer. Nothing rested in the delivery tray although I’d been printing on and off throughout the night, and by now usually a few faxes had arrived, ready for me to file away for the morning. A minor thing I’d been too busy to notice. Pulling open the various trays on the machine showed them all filled with the appropriate paper. Opening and shutting them with increasing force made no difference, nor did flicking the machine off and on, then off and on again The light still winked away at me, oblivious even when I hit the machine a few times. I pulled open a side door, then the front one, then another side one, but despite peering and poking into the dark interior I could find nothing jammed. I wondered how long the thing had been off line. Melody had warned me it could be temperamental, stopping for no obvious reason then start up again of its own accord when it finally felt like being of use.

I went back to my desk and started rummaging through a stack of loose papers carefully filed away for me for such an emergency. (On my first shift Melody had kindly left me pages of instructions for practical things I might need overnight. Those sort of things people never think to tell you, which you don’t realise you need to know until there is no one around to ask at three in the morning.) Although there was another printer in the main office, it wasn’t networked to the one I shared, and I lacked the passwords to get into any of the other computers. Strangely, however, a printer in some remote office on the other side of the building had been for some reason linked to mine (and to a few other computers around campus, in a thoroughly ad hoc manner.) Somewhere in this sheath of papers Melody had included a diagram on how to reach this fabled back-up printer.

First I had to get back into my computer (which had been running a go-slow campaign all night), work out what hadn’t been printed, cancel it, and re-direct it to this new printer. Luckily Melody had left all the instructions and code words and serial numbers; no way could I have worked this out on my own. How could anyone, even should they know of the printer’s existence? Despite the hour, from habit I carefully pushed my bag out of sight under my desk, then set off in search of a small office marked with the proverbial X on Melody’s map (but not, unfortunately, in red). Such places should lie hidden in the bowels of the building, but instead the room was a few flights up, tucked into a forgotten corner. Melody’s note made no mention of dragons or demons guarding the passages.

Although the room was technically in the same building as the labs, since this building had started life as two separate entities now joined together, I had quite a way to walk as my goal lay in the most distant corner – assuming I held the map correctly. When I reached the right section, the twelve flights of stairs proved beyond me ­– I decided to catch the lift.

The doors slid open onto darkness. Sensor lights flicked on and off as I passed along the corridor. The place even smelt different – somewhat softer and older – to everywhere else I frequented in my rounds at night.

After a few steps the elevator rumbled away, the noise echoing down the hallway. Although worn, the carpet under my feet was padded, enough to soften my footfall as I walked. The place felt remarkably peaceful. With the lift now gone, I’d found somewhere overlooked by the passing decades, if not the century. Ahead of me a row of lead-light windows filled the hallway with moonlight, the patterned light falling onto the carpet. As I passed I glanced out towards the old cupola, her golden light streaming into the night.

Consulting my map, I checked the numbers on each closed door as I passed. Those even in polished brass were easiest to see in the dim light, and a few doors had plates with engraved names. The place lay quiet around me, all noise smothered by the night. The building creaked a little around me, as if stretching in its sleep. I thought it deserted, until nearing the room I sought I noticed a soft light slipping under the door. From a few paces away it was barely visible.

The door fell open with a soft push. I saw a man sat at the end of a long desk, sketching.

Considering the hour, he was remarkably well dressed. Old but clean trousers, held high with faded braces, hung loose around his legs; a checked shirt completed the look, along with shoes polished as only an ex-military man can polish. He sat with papers spread around him, and what looked like a piece of charcoal in his hand. Moonlight fell through a window high in the wall behind him, turning the remnants of his hair into a silver halo.

“Oh, hello,” I stuttered, completely at a loss. Melody hadn’t mentioned this in her tome. Unintentionally I sighed and felt my body shrink. I pulled my hair free from its band and re-did my ponytail. How much longer could I do this? Everywhere I went, with every door I opened, something totally unexpected greeted me. All I wanted now was to simply get things sorted out, so I could leave this strange path I’d chosen and follow a different fate. This past year I’d been more than happy to stand stuck in the mire, but now I was sinking fast. Suddenly, I didn’t want to drown.

Feeling a little too much like an extra in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I sat at the desk opposite the stranger and offered a weak smile. I doubted now I’d ever find my printing, lost somewhere in the ether in some other mythical building. For his part, the elderly man didn’t seem in the least surprised at me turning up.

“Looks like you’ve been busy,” I finally offered. He’d littered the table with drawings, and a pile of blank paper lay in easy reach.

The old man nodded back at me. “Time just disappears when I’m drawing,” he answered. “Ted, by the way,” he said, putting down his charcoal and me offering a large, calloused hand. A lifetime of dirt and grease lay embedded in the cracked skin. These were the hands of a man who’d spent his years on the land. “Can’t complain though,” Ted continued. “My paintings just about walk out of here. Same thing when I was in Paris.”


Ted took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair. “Did I ever tell you I was there after the War?”

Looking at his white hair and withered body, I considered for a moment about Mafeking. “It must be a great feeling, to sell your creations.”

“Indeed it is, luv. Few can make a living as an artist.”

As he spoke a woman pushed open a door behind him, counterbalancing two mugs in one hand with a plate of biscuits in the other.

“Here you go, Dad,” she said. “A nice hot cuppa…” She stopped, looking not so much startled as anxious on spotting me.

“Thanks Tina,” her dad answered. “This nice young lady’s been looking at my work.”

I quickly rose to me feet. “I’m Stephanie,” I offered. “From down in the lab. I hope I’m in the right place. The printer died, and Melody said I could print things…”

“Of course, of course,” Tina interrupted, suddenly looking relieved. “Sorry, I was just startled to see you.”

“I didn’t mean to interrupt. I didn’t think anyone would be here.”

“Well there usually isn’t,” Tina answered, still standing with the tea things in her hands. She paused, as if uncertain, then promptly put the cups and plate down in front of her Dad and sat down. “It’s just, well, on a full moon Dad can get a bit restless,” she said. “Must be the light, I think. For the two or three nights it keeps him awake I bring him in here. If it’s raining or cloudy, doesn’t seem to be a problem.”

“So, why here?” I asked, also sitting down. “It must be a hassle bringing him in.”

“I don’t really have much choice. My husband gets up for work at four-thirty, so if his sleep’s disrupted, it’s just a shocker for everyone. I lecture here part-time, so I always have papers to mark or lectures to get ready. It’s easier to bring Dad in and get some work done. He’s out of everyone’s way, and as long as he can draw, doesn’t bother a soul. Every now and then he bursts into song, usually some ditty from his time in the army. The problem is he sings at full throttle; that’s what keeps Geoff – my husband – awake.” She looked cautiously at me over her cup.

“You must be chronically exhausted,” I said. “Do you have to work tomorrow?”

“No, I’m only part time. I get a carer in on the days I work, but yes, well…” Tina covered the quick quaver in her voice with a smile, a practical, what-else-can-you-do, he’s-my-dad smile. “Like I said, it’s usually just the full moon,” she added.

Tina offered me the plate of biscuits as her Dad started drawing again. With the arrival of his daughter, his attention had gone from me back to his work.

“Still,” Tina continued, “I’ve got a respite booked for next month. He’ll stay there for a couple of days, giving us all a break. It sounds selfish, but I just need some time off. And it will help me see how he goes.” She nibbled on a biscuit and glanced at her dad. “He’s on the waiting list for a few places,” she said, lowering her voice as she turned back to me. “It’s just taking a while, because, you know, a spot only comes up if someone dies, really. There’s a Vets place in town. That’s what I’m hoping for. I think that’s where he’d be happiest. Cause he’s remarkably well. You can tell by his hands how active he is. It’s just the wormholes in his mind. Still, could be worse.”

I didn’t say anything, unable to see how much worse it could be.

“What do you teach – I mean, lecture in?” I asked after a pause. Ted happily sat sketching. “I don’t even know what part of the Uni I’m in.”

“This is the forgotten history section,” Tina answered. “I know, the main area of the Arts Faculty is way over the other side of campus, but they have little offices everywhere. This floor is for those dead languages and cultures currently out of fashion. “The fact I’m up at the top of the building in a forgotten corner shows my specialty is the history and literature of Ancient Persia, especially poetry. I’m currently working on a new translation. Out of necessity I dabble in with the Ancient Greeks to pay the bills.”

“Another one finished,” said Ted, putting a sheet of paper to one side and picking up another.

“You won’t tell anyone, will you?” Tina asked.

“Tell anyone?” I asked. “That you can read Ancient Persian?”

“No,” said Tina, smothering a giggle with her hand, “that I bring Dad in here.”

“Why would I tell anyone?”

“Oh, you know what it’s like in a place like this. Everyone after too few jobs. At least the Grey Nurse is about tonight.”

“The Grey Nurse? What’s she got to do with it?”

“That’s why I was surprised to see you. Look, I know it sounds silly, but when the cupola light’s on, no one seems to come around here. I mean, there rarely is anyone around at this hour, and we’re so tucked away up here anyway. You think we’d be safe. But you’d be surprised how many people stay back late, or come into work early, and notice the light on in here. That’s when it can be a bit hard hiding Dad. But when the Grey Nurse is about, no one seems to find their way up here. Not that I’m superstitious or anything,” Tina hastily added. “It just seems to work out that way.” She nodded towards the window. “When that light goes out, I know to be on the lookout, should Dad be up and about or, god help me, should he start singing. Especially as Francis is on tonight. But fortunately there’s this cleaner, Henryk, who helps me. And he has a cousin in security, so when they’re both on, things are easier.”

Henryk, of course. It just had to be. And his endless cousins.

“He’s my husband’s cousin,” Tina continued in a chatty vein. “Twice removed, or something like that. You must’ve realised by now everyone down here is connected somehow.” She paused long enough to take a sip of tea. “I’m sorry,” she continued, “I’ve been talking non-stop, and all the while you wanted your print-outs. They come up in the back room. I’ll go get them, won’t be a tick. Can I get you a cuppa or something while I’m back there?

“Thanks, but no,” I answered, shaking my head. Although drinking tasteless tea from foam cups came with working nights, I couldn’t stomach another one at this hour. I still had my cold cup back at the lab to finish.

I could do with a coffee, I suddenly thought. I hadn’t heard from Kayl. Perhaps he wasn’t working tonight, and I’d been too busy to go find out. Maybe for once he’d been busy too.

“Wise choice,” Tina said. “The stuff they have here tastes like sawdust. But at least it’s hot.” She smiled as she left the room.

As Ted drank from his own mug I reached across the table and picked up one of his drawings. I sat looking at it for a few moments. “May I buy this one, Ted?”

“You can have it, my dear. You have such a beautiful smile. Like a Fra Lippi Madonna. One of my favourites, that painting is. I was thinking of Paris when I did it.”

“I can tell,” I said. The sketch showed an artist with an easel. “This must be of the Left Bank.”

“The Left Bank, you’ve got it exactly,” Ted said. “Did I ever tell you I’ve been to Paris? After the war.”

I looked at my new acquisition once more. Drawn in a wobbly, childish hand with thick, waxy crayon, it showed a simple stick figure. A black line for a beret, a stiff triangular smock, a paintbrush in one stick hand, a palette in the other. Most importantly, a smile filled the circle of a face, as the artist stood beside a square of an easel.

All drawn in the same hand as that picture I’d found amongst Dave’s things. The drawing I thought he might’ve saved from childhood, and I couldn’t place, and wondered why he’d kept.

After a while Tina returned with a pile of papers in her hand. “Did you notice the security camera on your way up, by the way?’

“No, where?” I asked, looking around.

“Not here. In the foyer downstairs. Not the cameras, I mean the screen where you can see the images. Have a look on the way out.”

“I didn’t notice. I caught the lift from the fourth floor.”

“Well if you down another level, along to the end of the corridor, then around in to the next one, there’s a staircase which winds down to the foyer. On the wall above the desk there’s a screen displaying some six or eight cameras.”

“Why, was is it?” I half-hoped Tina would tell me the Grey Nurse had been caught on tape.

Tina giggled. “Have a look at the woman in the stairwell, smoking. That’s me. And I gave up five weeks and two days ago.”

I shook my head. “I’m sorry, I’m really confused.”

“It’s got something to do with the workmen knocking down a wall or something and dislodging a security box. Well, it seems the best solution was to reinstall it in the roof – where, obviously, no one can get to it. Someone put an old tape into it to check it, forgot to take it out, and it’s been playing ever since.”

“You’ve got to love this place.”

Tina handed over some sheets of paper to me but kept hold of a manila folder. “You’re Dave’s brother, aren’t you?”

“I’m sorry?” Now I truly was stunned. “How did you…”

“You have his eyes. And his way of listening. As if I’m actually saying something worth listening to.” She paused, then handed me the folder. “He started using the printer up here, in the months before, well, before he died. I got the feeling he didn’t want anyone to see what he was printing up. If Dad was here when he came to collect them your brother always sat down and had a gossip with him. About the war, or art, sometimes farming. Whatever Dad wanted to talk about. This folder, well, these are papers he never collected. I don’t know what they are. I didn’t think I had the right to look through them, but, well, I didn’t want anyone else finding them.” She paused a moment. “I saw you at his funeral,” she added softly. “I didn’t think of these until long after that and, well, I didn’t know how to find you. I kept putting it in the too-hard basket, I suppose. When I saw your eyes, well, I knew they belonged to you.”

I sat rigid. My mouth wouldn’t move, but I had nothing to say. Was this what I’d come here to find, these answers to a big secret which didn’t exist, unearthed simply because my computer had chucked a hissy fit? Dave would never leave me a hint as obscure as that. These papers would be nothing. After Dom, he simply didn’t want anyone stealing his work again. That’s why Dave printed things up in a remote location, the equivalent of hiding something in Antarctica. Something which no one else would be looking for.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” said Tina, and suddenly she wrapped her arms around me, and Ted was patting my shoulder while I sobbed like a baby. I hadn’t cried like this since… well, long before Dave died.

“Don’t cry so, luv,” crooned Ted, stroking me. “Don’t cry. Me and Mum, we’ll sort everything out.”

“I know what they all think,” I sobbed. “Everyone. Every time they look at me. That I’m so cold.”

“There, there, luv,” crooned Ted.

“They do,” I continued. My voice sounded hysterical. “They think I’m such a bitch. That I don’t feel anything. She keeps scratching and scratching at me, wanting me to bleed. To prove I need them.” I gulped around my tears, unable to swallow or breathe properly.

Only one thing could shatter the moment; between my sobs I heard the door open. I looked up anxiously as Tina spun around; Ted kept patting my shoulder, oblivious. Henryk stood staring back at the three of us.

Of course. It just had to be Henryk.

“Poor wee thing’s a bit upset,” said Ted as he kept patting my back. “I told her, we’ll make everything okay.”

“Yes,” said Henryk. “Yes we will.” He’d stood there but a moment, but understood all with a glance. “I’ll stay with Ted,” he said to Tina. “I was hoping for a cuppa and a bit of a yarn. Why don’t you walk Stephanie back to her lab? Take your time, I’m in no hurry.”

The lights flashed on and off as Tina and I passed along the corridor. These lights which I’d found so romantic on walking here now fell straight from a dystopian future. They proved more unsettling than any unblinking whiteness of an interrogation bulb. These were the lights which took Winston Smith to Room 101 – and they lead him away, after he screamed “Do it to Julia!”

On hearing my dry wretch, Tina hurried me a few steps and, pushing open a door, hustled me into a bathroom. I made it just in time. Everything I’d thought or felt, not just since Dave died, but in all the years before, everything said to me, everything I hadn’t done, the sheer pathos of it all: all of it spewed into the toilet bowl. The bilious taste of those memories both poisoned and purified me.

And I felt all of it. Each tiny piece which came tumbling out flooded me with all I hadn’t felt during that time when nothing was allowed anything to touch me, and even from the years before when I’d felt too much.

Finally finished, I sat down with my head resting against the coldness of the cistern. I could barely support the weight of my saturated brain. I guessed Tina still waited outside. Totally humiliated, I didn’t know how to face this woman I’d only just met.

I turned as my stomach heaved again, although nothing was left. Sitting with my head against the toilet bowl and my mouth smeared with bile, my only thought was of a vending machine. I had no ponderings over what had just happened, or of Dave’s mystery, or how I could ever look at Henryk again; or that Dom was wandering around here ready to devour me, and Jason, well, I’d said no to Jason and made an enemy of someone gathering power to his fame, and argued with Bradley, and kept putting Gillian in the too-hard basket. I’d plunged myself into a job going nowhere using Dave’s suicide as an excuse, but I knew that not to be true. I now understood all these things, but I didn’t think of them. My only thought was to find a vending machine selling toothbrushes.

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