I woke to a mosquito whining in my ear. I blinked a few times, yawned, then stared out the window while scratching first at a bite on my index finger then another on my arm. Darkness stared back at me. The night air crept over the windowsill and dropped into the room, as heavy as sludge.
I’d fallen asleep in the wee hours watching Casablanca, struggling to stay awake to when Victor Laszlo, on hearing the German officers belt out Die Wacht am Rhein, storms out of Rick’s office to rouse the cafe and drown the Germans with La Marseillaise. Sleep, however, had different plans, sliding over me as Ingrid Bergman wandered an impossibly sterile bazaar, immaculately dressed with an enormous hat and matching gloves despite fleeing across a war-ravaged Europe.
I tossed back the covers to force myself from bed. Barefoot, dressed in a pair of faded pyjama pants and a forgotten shirt, I made my way through the dark house to the kitchen. After firmly shutting the door, I flicked on the light, and a cockroach scurried away to find some darkness. A bird twittered outside.
The kettle was already full, with a cup waiting nearby, along with a bowl, a box of healthy cereal and a spoon – although I’d been here less than a month, it hadn’t taken long to learn Bradley excelled at doing things others noticed. On my third day after moving in I’d risen to find a note beside my bowl (written neatly on real paper, not on the back of an envelope or a scrap of paper ripped from somewhere): Washing machine’s full, do you mind turning it on? Didn’t want to wake you. Last night our Pastor gave a really interesting talk on the Jews. Met someone there, wish me luck, Bradley.
Maybe Bradley’s sister would prove the same. I’d yet to meet her. She’d been busy the afternoon I came to see the place, and, it seemed, busy ever since. I couldn’t even recall her name.
I also hadn’t met this mysterious someone, nor had Bradley made any mention of her since leaving that note. Perhaps he was waiting for me to ask.
Rummaging in the cupboard, I found a tin of spaghetti, slopped it into a bowl and popped it in the microwave, then put a piece of bread in the toaster. Despite the humidity, I needed something hot in my belly. How much of the night had passed watching the darkness spread like vegemite across the ceiling?
As I waited for my early breakfast, I toyed with the idea of a shower but, worried about the noise, settled instead with splashing some water on my face. After all, this wasn’t my place, and it’d be a while before my new housemate would be awake and doing push-ups before ironing his clothes then offering to press mine. I doubted I’d ever convince Bradley of the merits of body heat; perhaps I’d have more luck with his elusive sister.
A line of ants trudged up the windowsill beside the sink. I’d yet to find a kitchen not under a constant state of siege. Unscrewing the sugar jar, I sprinkled a few grains on the sill, knowing they’d be taken away by the time Bradley awoke. No need for him to learn of my clandestine support for the animal side of the war. (Except for cockroaches and rats; I lacked empathy for either.)
With a soft sigh, I started on my morning cocktail: a strong instant coffee, lots of white sugar, two panadol, a banana, a prozac chaser. I’ve heard rumours of how, elsewhere in the world, people begin their day with a slice of papaya, the juice of a green lime trickling over the rose flesh, a swollen river tumbling by, golden pagodas glistening in the morning sun. Or maybe under the shimmering light of a city built from marble, sitting on a balcony overlooking The Eternal City as the toots of vespas fill the air, all the while drinking sweet lattés or sambucca-laden espressos. Somewhere a tolling bell and soft chimes parted the mists of dawn, and Buddhist prayer flags fluttered in the breeze as orange-robed monks made their way to temple. The faithful knelt outside on a veranda, listening to the prayers.
Anywhere but here.
Already I despaired of hitting forty listening to a kettle whistling in the darkness, all the while promising myself to be anywhere but here. Wherever here happened to be at the time.
The microwave beeped the same moment the toast leapt from the toaster; once more I’d been staring vacantly at nothing.
Flicking off the kitchen light, I wended my way back to the bedroom. Some crimson streaks had started their lazy strokes across the edge of the sky. Turning on my desk light, I picked up a book and settled on the recess built into the windowsill, my coffee beside me. Ignoring the heat, I pulled my doona from the bed and wrapped it around me. Despite the bulk, I found its embrace soft and cool. The twittering bird of a few moments ago had gone; at this muddy hour, I had only the croaking of frogs for company.
I sipped my coffee and stared into the early sky. Through the flickering silver of a gum tree I could just make out the setting moon. Still a country lass at heart, I knew I may as well stay awake, and instead aim at having a nap this afternoon, before beginning another set of nights. If, of course, I could sleep; despite the darkness, the day promised to be a scorcher.
I had no need to turn from the window to feel Dave’s boxes staring at me. I’d carefully stacked them in the corner on arriving, but now was not the time. Instead, I opened a book and pretended to read. Just finish this chapter, I thought, then maybe turn on Casablanca and watch Ingrid Bergman stare adoringly at her husband while he sings La Marseillaise.
Since moving here the days had passed almost unmarked, as had the nights. Somehow I survived starting in a new workplace. When not working, the weeks flowed by my feet in boring, practical chores; grocery shopping, unpacking bags, washing, settling into my new place. Gossiping with Dave on his grave, talking with Bradley by day, occasionally having the mental energy to wonder why I never saw his sister. She seemed to be forever at work, or busy with the church, or off away somewhere, doing good deeds or attending some course. I was beginning to doubt her existence.
Sometimes it rained, sometimes the dawn was cool but the days proved unbearably hot, but in all other respects the passing hours merely blended into one another. Bradley of the impeccable smile and neat butt kept the house spotless and the pantry filled, always leaving a bowl with something healthy beside it for my breakfast before he left for work. Occasionally we’d pass one another as we came and went, or be home to have dinner together, or the occasional herbal tea as Bradley jotted things on his clipboard while talking to me, but mostly Bradley was off at a Bible Study or a church function or networking with someone or other. I had no qualms of being alone in a strange house in a strange town; when Bradley was absent the house felt restful, totally unconcerned with my presence, as if it, too, relished the peace and quiet of emptiness.
All through this blank time I kept myself busy, so as not to think. Anything to avoid those boxes of Dave’s still sitting in the corner of my room. I pretended to look for clues but of course found nothing. What was there to find, after all this time? What mystery had I really to solve, other than why Dave had left me no note? No message, no hint. It was the only oddity in the whole murky affair.
Half a day later I emerged from my pre-work nap to find Bradley in the kitchen, the kettle on and the house sparkling. The house always sparkled. Settling myself down at the kitchen bench, I watched as Bradley took an extra cup from the cupboard, switched off the kettle just before it came to the boil then pour the water into the waiting cups. After warming them, he added tea bags, poured in more hot (but never boiling) water, then finished each cup off with a healthy dollop of low-fat milk.
All was performed in one flowing movement, yet I saw only an awkwardness I couldn’t quite describe to Dave. (I visited him often on my days off.) When I tried I simply sounded ungracious.
“Here you go,” Bradley said, sliding a cup across to me.
I unscrewed the lid from the ant-proof container and scooped two heaped teaspoons of sugar into my cup. (With a surreptitious glance I saw my earlier offering on the windowsill had vanished.) “Thanks,” I said, the steam swirling into a spiral as I stirred my tea. My spoon clinked against the cup.
“So, ready for tonight?” Bradley asked. He turned to the sink and began washing a plate as he talked.
“I suppose so. Was hoping I’d sleep for a bit longer, though.” I sipped my tea and watched as Bradley started on the drying up. Like ironing, drying was a thing beyond my ken; why have a draining rack and not use it? Yet Bradley wore his content expression while working his magic with the tea-towel. The kitchen shone; even the washing up he’d just finished glistened.
Another chore safely finished, Bradley sat at the bench opposite me, now wearing an expression of sincere intensity. He always had such complete expressions on his face; completely content, completely sincere – the repertoire was proving endless. Never a shade of grey graced his features.
“Perfect temperature,” Bradley said, taking a sip of his tea. “Always pays to leave it a few minutes will you finish the tidying. I was about to leave you a note, by the way,” he added, reaching out as he spoke to his ever-present clipboard which lay within arm’s reach. “I have a few things to do then I’m off to Bible Study, but there’s some dinner in the fridge for you before you start tonight.”
“That’s really sweet,” I answered, “but you really don’t have to cook for me.” I suspected the meal would prove healthy and well balanced, with not nearly enough hot fat.
“Actually, I didn’t make it, Kayl did. He’s a very good cook, so I brought some home for you.”
“Oh, Kayl,” I answered, suddenly hungry. “That’s nice of him.”
Although nice was not the right term when talking about Kayl. When I’d arrived and launched into the anti-social hours of perpetual nights, Kayl had been an unknown figure. Bradley had made passing mention of his sister’s boyfriend who worked somewhere in the Uni, and during the witching hours Kayl and I came to cross paths quite regularly. He worked in a small private hospital hidden in the sprawling university grounds. Well, I assumed he worked there, for that was where I always saw him, though I had yet to see him actually work. The hospital seemed more of a nursing home, but most nights a specimen or two lay waiting for me to collect and log, ready for processing in the lab the next day. (This was one of my nightly jobs which warranted all those years of study: collecting specimens across campus. With the university’s emphasis on research, there were always vials and pots to be picked up at odd hours for clerking, or results which needed checking. I was yet to be trusted with putting the bodily fluids into the machines myself; such duties belonged to the day staff. The only brain power the whole process required was staying awake, and not getting too lost as I wended my way between such odd places as the vet school and the physiology labs, or that place where impoverished students on various drug trials come to have their blood samples taken at strange hours. As most of the places I went were connected by tunnels or walkways, I rarely saw even the night sky as I travelled.)
Of all the people I’d met in this new place, it was Kayl I saw the most. Like myself, Kayl worked eternal nights, yet seemed to hold oceans of time between his hands. It was Kayl who made sure something unhealthy waited in the fridge for me should he be cooking (which seemed most days, he was forever dropping by with something tasty, then in the absence of his girlfriend leaving with Bradley to attend a do at their church), Kayl who made me coffee at work and Kayl who introduced me to the gossip of the halls.
“Where’s Louise?” I asked, her name delivered to me in a moment of inspiration.
“Oh, she got back this afternoon, and now she and Kayl are off somewhere. I’m meeting them shortly.” Looking at his watch, Bradley downed his tea and picked up his clipboard in one smooth, well-practiced movement.
“Back?” I looked at Bradley blankly. Louise had come back from somewhere last set of nights I worked, leaving signs of her existence about the house although I hadn’t met her; now she’d vanished again and returned with me none the wiser. No wonder I’d yet to see her. “Where’s she been this time?” I asked.
“Oh, she volunteers as a counsellor for Canteen. She’s been off at some camp for the past few days. Well, I don’t want to be late. Enjoy work.” With making a cuppa and spending some time talking to his new flatmate now crossed off his to-do list, Bradley nodded and headed out of the room. He wore a focused look, as if concentrating on the next item on his agenda. A few minutes later I heard the front door shut, (a soft, but firm, shut), followed by I the creaks and rasps of a house settling itself for the evening; I swear I could feel the place relax. The house was at peace, with no one to worry about. I could obviously be ignored.
In contrast, a storm was brewing outside, and I could feel the tension as everything waited for the rain. Clouds bubbled over tiled roofs and lonely chimneys, and in the time I’d sat drinking tea with Bradley the evening had grown a translucent orange. Around me, the kitchen shimmered. A host of flying ants swarmed against the glass, a sure sign of the storm to come.
I wandered back to my room and, picking up my diary and pens, brought them back to the kitchen to join my half-drunk tea. Letting the pages of the diary fall open to today, I looked through my collection of pens and carefully chose one with a green felt tip. As I squiggled a fat line through my own meticulous to do list, I smiled ruefully, half ashamed that such a thing could give me inordinate pride, half pleased no one was around to catch my smile. Especially Bradley; would he see my diary as a pathetic rival to his clipboard?
Lists, balances, things to do, what not to do: these had always been part of my life. Dad, who’d graduated from altar boy to acolyte (plus voice on the parish council, ending up with a Papal Order proudly displayed and regularly dusted in the front room), had been ever willing to donate the jumper off his back to someone more obviously needy, yet through the melody of his words ran the knowledge that love – the love of God, of a parent, of a sibling – was a thing to be measured. Love was an equation which, when left unbalanced, ran only to disaster. To the Evil of Original Sin.
Embracing her husband’s cult of physical and emotional poverty, Mum had dressed us in other people’s clothes, then finished the two of us off with a dusting of icing sugar. I could still taste the empty sweetness. Striping away that coating was the first thing I’d done on leaving home. With the gentleness of surgical precision, Jason had sliced away a fair bit (always for my own good, for he was older and knew better), till he realised he neither understood nor liked what lay beneath. (Nor, for that matter, did I.) Then the florid criticisms began to flow.
I tilted my head back in despair. What miasma filled this place so that, since coming here, every thought lead back to Jason? All day my dreams and half-awake thoughts had been filled with every memory and nuance from that time with him. I despaired of ever sleeping properly again. He was the only guy I knew to get a needle-stick injury from a mummified corpse, for Christ sake. Yet somehow the fuss which followed grew to an elite joke worthy of beatification.
Such attention showers only over one or two in each generation. As I struggled with each passing day, my ex-lover sauntered through his perfect life with a self-deprecating smile, his ideal features artfully arranged in benign amazement at Fortune’s continued blessing. He’d captained his school, played firsts for uni the year they’d won the medal (his nose artfully broken, perfect for his then other career of a part-time model), volunteered with both the surf life-savers and the ski patrol, and could generate the right smile for every occasion. Whichever way Jason chose to look, Fate painted for him a perfect future, while mine had always been a pealing trompe l’oeil. Still, it was a miracle Jason had ever seen me. Seen me as someone more than Dave’s little sister, that is, for we’d known each other for years. Or that, knowing all this, knowing his past, my heart had turned to goo. As did everyone’s who met him.
Jason’s first television appearance came some six months after we’d started dating. Dave phoned, I flicked on the tele and there Jason stood, his eyes holding me as if he spoke to me alone. This was his gift.
“Oh my goodness, summarize the fundamentals of environmental footprints as measured in geological terms!” With consummate skill Jason married current trends into fourteen-second sound bites. (Within a few months, he’d have it down to ten seconds.) From the first he excelled at looking into a camera and capturing every viewer in an individual embrace. All marvelled at this clever young man who could condense abstract thoughts for those less erudite individuals who might also be watching.
I’d seen this on-the-spot interview many a time, for Jason kept copies of all he did, and for a while freely gave them away. Various media had come to cover some big discovery in an enticingly remote area. While camera crews set up their lights and tried to make the head scientist look vaguely appealing, Jason and Dave fooled around in the background. Only Jason made it to the screen. Casually ruffled and elegantly confident, a sleeve gracefully torn, his words of quiet confidence led the reporter to call him Professor. Jason responded by skilfully abasing himself to a mere first name, refusing the borrowed title. (Oh, I haven’t earnt such a lustrous title, said his serious smile. Not yet, smiled back the reporter.) Jason never did earn those titles which clung to him.
Mesmerized by my lover, it’d taken me a while to notice the feet in the background. Dave’s feet; I’d know those boots anywhere. As Dave and the others worked, Jason gathered glory. A portent, really, had I only taken the time to read it.
With his classically aberrant features filling the screen, it was inevitable Jason would graduate from this interview to regular appearances on both radio and television. To writing books for the adoring masses. Cameras caressed his face, microphones turned his voice to silk, and even the wise believed his words of gold.
I glanced at my watch as I drove. I hated being late, but being late on the first night put the rest of the working week out of kilter, leaving it to run unbalanced as I struggled a job or two behind where I should be. Where a proper research associate would be.
Despite the warning of the flying ants, not until evening had donned her robes of darkness did the festering tension finally rip open the belly of the heavens. Rain and lightening plummeted from the sky, pulling me from my daydreams. I’d progressed from squiggling lines in my diary to watching Roman Holiday. For how many years had I prayed to grow up looking like either Audrey Hepburn or Ingrid Bergman, or an amalgamation of the two? Surely such a challenge was nothing to One who’d not only invented but understood quantum physics. Strangely, God had ignored my request.
(I took this as further evidence to prove God lacked freewill. A perfect God must make a perfect universe; to change how I looked, to make me less or more than what He’d originally made me, would be proof God hadn’t made the most perfect option. Since God can’t make mistakes, He therefore can’t change me, or create things that can be changed, for He must make things which are the most perfect at the most perfect point in time – therefore He has no freewill to change things. Of course, centuries of philosophers have expressed this argument in more lucid terms, but it does beg the question: If God, being a perfect being, has no freewill, why the hell did He curse me with it?)
The storm didn’t make things easier, for it always brought back memories unbidden. The Argument had been on such a night, the night which heralded so few days left together. Once more the tape recording of Jason’s voice clicked on in my head as I drove.
“Most people grow up and get over these issues when they’re in high school.”
My own thoughts were too busy with the rain, with driving, with trying to see the lanes on the road and finding somewhere to park. I couldn’t do all that and smother Jason’s superior tones. Perhaps I still needed to hear them. His words ran on an endless cycle which could flick on at any time, most often in the forgotten hours of the night. Another reason I loved working them.
“Don’t you think it’s time you grew up? That was Jenny’s engagement party! I mean, for Christ’s sake Stephanie!”
So many things I could say but never did, afraid of being blown off the edge of the map into the realms of sea-monsters and two headed deities. There be monsters. Instead, senseless sounds churned in my throat, and I was reduced to saying nothing. The injustice rendered me inarticulate.
Besides, part of me still believed him.
“All her talk of applying for this job is absolute rubbish,” Jason continued over my silence. “Tony needs to go overseas for some experience if he’s ever to get a decent job here, and she’ll have to go with him. Taking this job is pure selfishness on her part. It stops someone else from getting it, someone who could make far better use of it as a stepping stone.” He swore as a car cut in front of us, then took the next turn on the right. “Well, for God’s sake, say something, Stephanie. Or are you just going to sit there, passing judgment as you always do?”
I stared out the car window into the darkness, my thoughts reduced to failed meringues. I knew no way to voice them. The connections between my thoughts are at best obscure, and I can tell by the looks they think I don’t see how most consider me slightly slow. Like my brother, I lack the gift of tongues, but on the rare occasion Dave opened his mind to others his childish enthusiasm enchanted everyone. By contrast, my words so often melt into a meaningless stammer that confusion spreads across the face of anyone still bothering to listen to me. Most interrupt before I finish a sentence; some don’t even hear me speak. Raised by nuns to be ever polite, I never interrupt back. The mistake must be mine; I’d said something dumb, again. How often had I blushed as others laughed and Jason clapped his hands and cried, “Write that down!” – for he always knew better.
The only doubt Jason couldn’t see, the only thing I knew as a surety, was the unfairness. I’d never imagined this side of him when we first... then I closed my eyes to its existence, for seeing it changed how I saw all the other bits: a few bits of Jason, but more importantly, many bits of myself. Even the reflection looking back at me as I cleaned my teeth and quickly did my hair of a morning had changed. At the first suspicion I rapidly buried the idea, quickly blaming other things. Next I began hiding every unwanted bit behind closed doors, for they had no place in the idealized future everyone painted of us as a couple.
Rain pelted across the window as I said nothing and Jason didn’t stop talking. I couldn’t even cry. If life ran to the script of one of my movies, a truck – or a drunk driver – would loom up from nowhere, and these words would lie seared across my memory as I wore black and sobbed into a lace handkerchief at Jason’s funeral. Which would be dark and broody. Only no truck came, just more words to hammer what remained of our relationship deeper into the mire. A whole litany of my faults, which I’d once seen as my few strengths. Jason could easily have kept going, only we’d reached his flat, so instead he carried me over the puddles so I wouldn’t get my feet wet and ruin my shoes. No wonder I still loved him.
All this time my muscles ached from struggling to hide all those parts I hadn’t wanted Jason to see, in case he caught a glimpse of them in my eyes. Finally, I became a block of Swiss cheese, with Jason’s personality flooding through the aching holes. Naively, (or stupidly), I’d assumed this was he’d meant about being in a grown-up relationship. Of just getting on with things, instead of always asking questions. Not when the answers are so obvious only a child would seek them.
The rain showed no sign of letting up. Naturally, I’d factored in the time needed to drive around looking for a park, trying to find a spot close to the side entrance where the streetlights worked but didn’t become a clearway first thing in the morning. I’d been here long enough to know these things, and for the memory of my shifts to blend into one another. Bits stood out but, like the plot of a modern novel, I was having trouble remembering exactly what had occurred when.
My new workplace hid deep within an inter-meshing of five buildings of different heights, each filled with people doing various jobs which, from what I could gather, held no relation to one another. Another half a dozen grey and brown buildings lay scattered to either side, the playthings of bored giants.
In the midst of this chaos resided a grand old building, complete with a glorious cupola. It’d once been a hospital, back when the town was young and rich, but now only the high priests of Administration could freely wander here. Into this hallowed ground few were allowed entrance, and never at night.
I waited at a red light, the streams of water dancing across the car bonnet. A police car hurtled past, and the gravid raindrops caught the gaudy colours of the flashing sirens, shimmering blue and red before splattering to the ground.
A sheet of lightning flicked the darkness into sudden day, then just as quickly the night came back and I watched the rain blow across the streetlights and into the devouring blackness. Unlike my world of cinematic escape, where every storm holds some cathartic portent, I knew no mystery was about to blow out of the darkness and invert the order of my terrestrial sphere. The drama of the storm merely made getting to work a chore.
With the turn of a corner, the cupola of the old hospital came into view. Oblivious to the chaos of the night, it floated above the earth-bound buildings. Light slid gracefully through its stained-glass windows and into the downpour. I smiled in the darkness of my car; the Grey Nurse was about. Perhaps tonight I’d finally see her.
First I circled the block, then did the larger loop with no luck. On such a night, anywhere else was too far, despite the fact I’d actually been organised enough to bring an umbrella. The storm was simply too heavy. A gentle shower which pirouetted across the roof to drift lazily through dreams I could manage, but the violence of this assault was beyond a quick dash in the rain.
Reluctantly, I drove into the multi-story car park, and immediately the world turned slab grey. Stacked upon stack, row upon row, layer upon layer, of grey. Even at this hour the place was full, for half the floors were roped off after five. I finally found a spot, then wasted a few moments simply sitting, not yet ready to leave my car but knowing if I didn’t go now I’d be late.
Picking up my faded cardigan which had seen me through so much, I pulled it tight around me, slung my battered satchel over my shoulder, then scampered down the graffitied stairs and into the tunnel.
Like any entrance to hell, the tunnel smelt stale. Stale vomit, stale urine. Stale bodies, everywhere. A winter of rain couldn’t cleanse it. Tattered posters tentatively clung to the walls. Despite two security men sharing a smoke, the tunnel remained a perfect place for a murder. A few people headed back towards the car park, chatting amongst themselves. None smiled a hello.
I doubted I was even seen. I’d long known myself to be invisible. No fairy godmother had come to my christening; I had no goddess to guide my steps, no famous ancestor to take my hand and lead me to the giddy heights of this world. No one, even, to teach me how to pluck my eyebrows or wax my legs. All mysteries to stumble through, embarrassing myself along the way. Not, however, that I minded, being happy enough to pass through the days unnoticed. The mist enshrouding my thoughts had morphed with the years into a physical barrier. My face, at best, could be described as average: a blank slate which, on the occasions people did notice me, was recognised as belonging to someone else – a friend from kindergarten, a niece twice removed, a physio from another state. Some would call it a gift. Being unseen, nothing could reach out and touch me: not the disease, nor the bitterness, not the death. It was an easy way of staying immune.
Taking a branch to the left, I veered deeper underground. The roof of the tunnel sagged with exhaustion; I need only stretch out an arm to touch its coat of dirt. Crackled pipes either leaked water or spewed steam. Dingy doorways opened onto more plumbing disasters, offering too many choices on where to stash a body. Amazingly, it was in such a tunnel (but in another place, in another fold of time) Jason and I had met, scurrying in opposite directions while trying to avoid unnamed stains on the ground. This time he actually noticed me.
For once, as I played the (much smaller) part of a perfect couple, I finally saw myself mirrored in other people’s eyes. Then, as Jason’s fame grew and others drooled, my perfect more-than-other-half decided (after that first disastrous photo in the social pages) to move on to someone more photogenic. Someone more able to drop everything and follow him on his lecture tours. A smile of honey had dripped across his sculptured features as Jason wondered, truly wondered, why I was so upset. You wanted to go out with me in the first place, after all, crooned that smile. It’s as much your fault as mine. More your fault, really.
With the summer storm ushering in a cold night, my nose was dripping before I reached the end of the tunnel. Half-heartedly I searched through my pockets for a tissue. My cardigan was as shapeless and as faded as my life, a once colourful thing hanging just below my hips. My jeans were splattered with a few permanent stains, a legacy of the rust-stained water of a past flat. Perfect for my life of nights.
Reaching the elevators, I pressed all four buttons before deciding on the stairs. Like the tunnel, tattered posters lined the stairwell at fragmented angles, reminding all of their rights, of how to protect your back at work, don’t forget to call the terrorism hot line. Only it had another name now. The alert-but-not-alarmed hot line.
Opening a door into yet another corridor, I passed a few late workers heading home. I’d now surfaced from the death-defying tunnel into one of the many rabbit warrens winding through the buildings. Even after a month I still confused them. Lacking my brother’s skill, whenever I left a stairwell or opened a door I automatically turned the wrong way. Even when deliberately heading off in the opposite direction to where I thought I should be going, it proved the wrong way. Dave could be anywhere, blindfolded and twirled around, and still be able to point to north, yet even with signs pointing where to go, I had this habit of leaving the lifts and walking into a blank wall or a dirty window. At least there were few to see me do so at this hour, for by this time of night the place had been stripped of all optional extras. For a place bustling by day, the buildings sported a plethora of empty spaces and deserted windings.
A stick-thin porter and a security woman, deep in conversation, looked up as I passed, the first to actually look at me since that scamper from my car. The porter slid an envelope out of sight as the woman almost smiled, but neither uttered a word. A supervisor strode past, too busy talking in to her mobile to notice anything.
The hands on my watch told me to hurry. For too long my time had belonged to others. At school the nuns (who’d also taught Dave, and the more senile ones remembered the glory of teaching my Mum and a few aunts) had indoctrinated into me scrupulous punctuality; it took university to teach me the freedom of tardiness. Whole days came and went, unmarked, as great swathes of time stretched gracefully before me, waiting to be explored. Then I’d graduated, and as they handed me my degree the gods took away my time and served it out to others in large, syrupy dollops. Everyone demanded their share, and many went back for seconds. Now, if anyone had a problem, it fell into my lap. Yet if I had one; that was different. No one ever gives time back. Other people’s time is always more important. I was yet to wake and find a prettily wrapped package lying beside my pillow of a morning.
No wonder my mind felt full of fog, my footsteps not my own.
Puffing just a little, I made my way along a corridor which, although it looked straight, slowly bent to the right until it opened into another stairwell. With each turn of the stairs I paused and watched the rain smear across the windows. Counting the droplets as they trickled down the grimy pane, I mused about an undiscovered equation lying somewhere in the ether, one which predicted how many drops were needed before they melded into a blur on a window. What variables would be needed to make it work? The strength of the storm, maybe? Perhaps the direction of the wind, or the size of the drops. How much did raindrops actually vary in size? Even the time of year could be a factor.
My first week here had passed in a blur of bogong moths. Each night their bumbling bodies had filled every stairwell, bumping into me as I went about my work. The furry critters plastered themselves over windows and smothered light-globes with their thick wings. Now, with coming of the rain, they’d vanished.
Ushered in by the storm, another week of working nights lay before me. Five lots of twelve hours. How was I to know, as I stumbled up those stairs, that one week, this week, was all it would take. A lifetime of waiting, and it would take but one week.