The Footstep Thief

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Chapter 4

“Are you sure you want to go in there?” asked Dave

“What on earth are you doing here?” My brother’s sudden appearance as I pushed open the door to the labs to start work startled me. “You never come inside.”

“I know, but someone had to warn you. Nice to see you too, by the way.”

“Warn me? About what?” Out of habit I skittered through my last set of nights, trying to work out what I’d done wrong, what error waited for me inside. Something I’d forgotten to do to one of the machines? A specimen I’d left somewhere? Nothing sprung to mind.

“Don’t worry, it’s nothing you’ve done. Your job ain’t exactly rocket science, is it?” Dave paused a moment, leant against the wall, then added, “Just tell me this, Steph, why are you here?”

“You know why.”

“Well, I don’t, not really. I don’t think you do either.”

“I have to get in to work,” I said. “I haven’t been here long enough to be late.”

“Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“You’re not about to get all deep and talk about the journey being more important than the destination or whatever?”

Dave just smiled. “Can’t you smell it?” he asked.

“Since when can you smell?”

“Well, good point, but I sort of see odours as colours. Strange, but true. Just think,” Dave continued, “all the labs you’ve worked in, what do they smell like?”

“I’ve only worked in two others.”

“Exactly. Just a small point, but I was wondering when you’d bring it up. Are you planning to tell them?”

“Them? Who’s them?”

“Everyone here thinks you’ve got heaps of experience as a scientist.” Dave moved a little closer to rest against the doorjamb beside me. “A science graduate,” he repeated slowly.

“Rubbish,” I answered. “No one here thinks of me at all. I’m just the nameless night person. Besides, a doctor is a scientist. Sort off. And I did a research year for my BScMed. So I am a science graduate. Just not as graduatey as these guys.”

“It’s not quite the same thing, though the powers that be think there’s some method to your madness. And people do notice you. Believe me. And one day you’ll say something which will get someone thinking. And they’ll work it out. And wonder why you gave up your hospital life to come work nights here. They’ll come up with all sort of weird ideas, not necessarily wonderful. None of them nearly as interesting as the truth.”

I wasn’t quite sure how to answer this, it being too early in the night to enter into esoteric arguments. Instead, I put my hand on the door handle. “You coming through?” I asked.

“No,” Dave answered. “But think about what I said. People love conspiracy theories. And remember, I warned you about the smell.”

Bidding my brother farewell, I pushed open the door and paused; everything seemed all right. I’d no idea what Dave had been on about. I crossed the reception area –empty, of course, at this hour – and headed towards the tea-room.

As soon as I opened the door my nose wrinkled in disgust. It smelt, as my brother would say, distinctive.

I dropped my bag and took a quick survey. The once off-white walls now wore a coat of paint best described as baby-pooh. Despite this, I still liked this room. Complete with lounge chairs and stained coffee cups (and the mandatory note reminding everyone their mother didn’t work here) the place had a homely feel. From my first night it’d been a place where I felt comfortable. Whenever I had a lull between jobs I’d come in here, shut the door, and so shut out the world. I could even close my eyes and sleep. Not tonight, though – and probably not for any night this week. Perhaps I could find some unused corner in the labs.

On the table to one side of the room slept the book where people jotted down what they wanted me to do overnight. Before I’d reached it the smell had started eating at my nose. Beside the table were stacked pictures and posters from various art exhibitions which, up until last week, had covered the grubby walls. My favourite was a Monet of the Grand Canal. At first it looked all burnt oranges and creams, until I leant closer and saw a myriad of colours hidden in the shadows.

Picking up my job book, I made it across the room and out the far door just as my eyes started watering. I headed down the corridor, reading as I went. The smell of the paint faded, a little, as I entered the labyrinth of labs and offices which wove through each other and down some stairs to the back of the building. My night-time cubby-hole lay a little way down the corridor.

To my surprise I found Melody crouched over her desk. “Evening,” I called from the doorway, wiping my eyes with my cardigan sleeve. “I thought everyone must’ve gone.”

Melody laughed. She always seemed to laugh at something. “I’m in the middle of getting some results,” she said. “I was going to leave it for you, but then realized that by the time I write down what I need you to do, it was just as quick for me to finish the stuff off myself. An unusual philosophy, I know, especially for here.”

Of a height comparable to Napoleon’s, Melody proved as equally dynamic, yet I found being around her remarkably peaceful. Even at this time of night the girl radiated life, and her skin simply glowed. Melody had been here the day I’d arrived; instead of grunting and pointing me in another direction, she’d shown me around, and had even taken the time to make me a cup of tea. This was the first place I’d ever worked where someone had willingly shown me around without deliberately trying to confuse me, taking the time to point out all those ins and outs which cluster together to make a new job so stressful. Melody had shown me where to find various forms, explained what I was actually expected to do overnight, what was to be done when a certain light on the machine second from the left in the third lab (most my work was in the main lab, but occasionally I had to poke my nose elsewhere) started flashing. Little things I’d eventually work out for myself – everyone does – but which, by merely knowing before beginning, dissolve more than a few layers of the stress coating any new job.

“I thought the stench had driven everyone away,” I said.

“Awful, isn’t it?” Melody answered, glancing at the computer and jotting something down on the notepad beside her. “I believe there’s new carpet going in as well – I’m surprised they didn’t do that first and then ruin it with paint drips. But, as apparently that delightful colour on the walls is just an undercoat, there’s time yet for a few more disasters. With the rain the painters haven’t been able open the windows to get rid of the stench. They started last Friday, and, trust me, it’s still just as bad. Thought I’d get used to it but, well, you don’t.”

“Sure I can’t finish anything for you?”

“Look, I’ll only be another fifteen minutes or so,” Melody answered. “Put your feet up and have a cup tea. The first of many for the night. Though I suggest you drink your tea elsewhere. Get your books out ready for some study. I’ll be out of your hair in a minute.”

“Study?” I asked. “What makes you think I’m studying?”

Melody smiled. “Everyone doing nights studies, or works on a thesis, or writes bad poetry. Whatever. When I was stuck doing nights I contemplated setting up an on-line business running guns to South America. Matched the time zones perfectly. This isn’t the sort of job you do for fun. Besides, the week on, week off roster makes it perfect for study.”

“I see. No secrets here. And you? Do day-time people study as well?” If people thought I’d come here to study, so much the better. It’d make my wanderings easier.

“God, I don’t miss that feeling,” Melody said. “You know, the guilt over every minute you’re not busy with your books. The amount of stuff I postponed to do after the exam! Like actually having a life. Then you do your exam, and suddenly you have all this free time – unless you’re stupid enough, like me, to start on your masters. Then it’s the PhD, overseas experience – I don’t know, it seems never ending. I won’t even start on the battle to get published.” She paused at the sound of a faint beeping. “That can wait a minute,” she said, casting an eye towards the far side of the lab. “You know about the Common Room downstairs, don’t you?”

“No,” I answered. “Whereabouts?”

“Oh. I’m sorry, I thought I’d shown you on that first day. Just take the lift to the basement and follow the signs. I don’t use it much, but what with the paint dominating everything up here, it’s a good option if you need to escape for a cup of tea. Plus there’s a few couches perfect for a snooze. It even has showers – great if you need to wake up to drive home. Heh,” she added, “have you checked your roster to see if you’re on days off for the broadcast?”

“Broadcast? What broadcast?”

“Of course, it was all organized before you started up here. It’s all the talk at the moment. The only talk. Next month Jason is doing a broadcast for one of those morning shows from campus.”


“Oh God, another fan,” said Melody, misunderstanding my tone. “Actually, the only reason I want to go and see him is to test this theory of mine. I mean, he looks so good on TV he can’t be like that in real life. What we’re seeing is a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional image, so, if you look good in 2D, you can’t in 3D. Mutually exclusive, or so my theory goes. What I really like about this one, though, is that it works the other way around: if you look bad in a photo, you must look good in real life.”

“I like it,” I said.“Simple, testable, reproducible. You could even be old-fashioned and add a null hypothesis.” This was the first time, I was absolutely sure it was the first time, I’d met someone not enamoured of Jason. Plus I liked Melody’s theory, and the way she talked; and Dave would like it also, when I told him. A pity he hadn’t come in with me.

“Anyway, I’ll be finished in a bit,” Melody continued, “unless I keep jabbering away. Go find the Common Room maybe, then come back whenever. I’ll leave a note in the book if I need anything else done.”

“Well, the book’s here,” I said, popping on the desk beside her. “There was no way I was sitting out in the tea-room to read it.”

Melody just smiled. “Let me know if you’re free,” she said. “We can go to the broadcast together and test out my theory. Who knows, we might even be able to work it into a paper. You know what they say, publish or perish.”

Sensing Melody wanted the place to herself for a while, I bravely headed back to the tearoom. Holding my breath, I dashed across to the pigeonholes on the wall above the small fridge. Considering how short a time I’d actually worked here, an amazing amount of stuff accumulated in my little slot every week. As I shovelled the lot into my bag, I felt something bulky stuffed in amongst the usual papers. I pulled out a thick envelope from the collection. My night immediately degenerated; the immaculate script on the front was unmistakable. The same writing I’d seen on a card bearing a nude and resting on Dave’s grave.

Ignoring the fumes swirling around me, I ripped open the envelope and pulled out the waiting card. A cute calf stared soulfully back at me. I couldn’t help but raise a slow eyebrow in surprise; cute calves had never been Gillian’s style.

I leant back against the fridge and stared at nothing. How on earth had Gillian managed to get this card here? Maybe she’d dropped me a note when leaving the card and flowers on Dave’s grave, and, as is the case in every public institution, the internal mail took forever. Yet even to a graveyard floral deliveries could be easily managed over a phone, which left no explanation for this envelope with no stamp. Could a phone call organise that as well? Even back at school Gillian wove an impressive web of contacts; by now it must be immense, and anything must be possible for that woman, however improbable. She hadn’t delivered the card herself, for had Gillian actually come this far, there was no way she’d leave without making her presence felt (and then commander a bed for the night). Such a thing was not improbable, but impossible.

I knew the truth: in Gillian’s eyes I was simply not important enough to find. Leaving the card, being seen to leave a card in my pigeonhole; that I could imagine. That was the important part. Gillian could be here for whatever reason necessary for her meteoric career, and in the interim graciously leave a card for poor little Stephanie. It was the only explanation I could grasp – for the moment, but the night was long, and my brain pickled by the fumes – but even thinking it left me feeling a bit dirty. Not only for what Gillian had done, but that I could be bitchy enough to imagine it all so readily, despite its inherent truth.

Continuing in the bitchy mode, I pondered about the lackey sent wandering into the depths of the building in search of the right pigeonhole. Probably someone short and under-fed, and wearing brown shoes. Then again, I could easily see Gillian deigning to come across campus, loudly asking directions from all she passed and so ensuring everyone knew where she going, and why, and what a wonderful thing she was doing.

I kicked my bag under the bench. (The bag proved remarkably resilient, considering the way I treated it most nights.) My shift had yet to begin, but I could feel the hope that it might be bearable, kindled by Melody, burning away. I felt as trapped as that young enlisted guy in South Pacific, who fell for the island girl who spoke no English. Fate and The-World-At-Large simply took control of both their lives. Whatever he did, whatever wrong he tried to correct, it was too late. By leaving, he’d given the girl’s dragon of a mother the excuse to destroy everything – and to blame him in the process, a guilt he readily accepted.

Gillian’s card smouldered in my hand, waiting to do the same. Like the mother on that Pacific island, Gillian had always put a controlling finger anywhere she thought important. Back at boarding school, Gillian had cultivated the air of the sophisticate amongst the day-girls; being both a border and a year lower, I was not even contemplated. Until Jason. In that too brief a time when people actually knew my name, I’d felt more and more of Gillian’s web spin around me, although our ways had parted a few years earlier. At first I’d been too in love to notice, or when I did, too enamoured to care. Or bother to care. After all, despite their obliqueness, Gillian’s plans added to the attention, which was more than I’d ever known. Even after everything fell apart, Gillian never cut me fully free; faint strands from that web caught me at unexpected times – such as now.

Perhaps this was the reason for the card. To not let go. To give the web a tug, just to make sure I was there, and that I could feel Gillian tugging. Somehow Gillian had found out where I’d started working – after all, despite doing my best to sever all ties with the real world, I’d made no secret of my move to the few who’d asked – but now that she’d found I’d had come here, of all places, Gillian would be desperate to know why. How could she understand the reasons, when I barely admitted them to myself? I almost raised a smile as I stood in that paint-infested room, staring at the soulful calf. The puzzle must be eating away at the poor girl as she sat in the centre of her web, watching everything.

Not that I’d ever thought of Gillian as a spider. Not at first. After all, I’d never seen the woman spit out a desiccated corpse – until Dave.

Gillian had wrapped my pathetically naïve brother in her web when he woke one morning to read his career-making research published under another’s name. Dom’s, to be precise, although naturally a few others followed in the credits. Dave was belittled to the academic equivalent of a mere ’and my thanks to’. I still don’t know how Dom managed this coup, or even why, but it was no mystery as to how he got away with it. Those not intimidated by the man’s size and bullying arrogance were scared by his Book of Death – although no one, as far as I knew, had ever seen it. Like Schliemann seeking Troy, I needed to prove this mythical book existed. Doing so would explain much of what had happened. But even this yearning lay way down my own to do list; I had no idea where Dom was, and no desire to be anywhere near him. But I might find someone who’d seen The Book.

Book of Death; the name alone excited whispers and caused people to scurry like cockroaches whenever they heard his voice. Dom had so perfected the air of a bully the man now had to do nothing to get all he wanted. He didn’t even have to show his face.

Jason, naturally, headed the ensuing inquiry (since I’d already been jettisoned, he saw no conflict of interest deciding my brother’s fate). Being interstate at the time, his was the perfect advice on all that had happened. Jason had made a career on being an expert on such things – had he not published so many papers on the subject, the result of being paid to read everyone else’s work, to decide who to publish and who to withhold, to lend his advice (and name) in getting studies published, then to publish his own summaries of what everyone wrote? With consummate ease he led the inquiry and the de-briefing sessions, wrote the reports, then (after reducing the pertinent names to initials) presented the case at international conferences, so producing yet another paper summarizing everyone else’s work.

Reluctantly, he concluded, since so much time had passed, it was best to treat the whole affair as a fait accompli: nothing could be done. In all the ensuing discussions and inquiries Dave’s voice lay unheard, trodden on by all. Despite everyone privately saying they understood, the academic world quietly burnt my brother at the intellectual stake, then washed their hands. Some had washed and dried their hands before either the stake or type of firewood had been chosen. Dom received the credit and Dave lost his promised promotion and tenure – because he hadn’t published enough research. In the midst of the chaos, Gillian somehow snared Dave (like the stolen thesis, this feat too remained a mystery to both me and my brother), but in the chaos Gillian forgot to douse the flames and Dave became ash.

I can still remember the look slathered across my brother’s face as his new girlfriend enunciated his doom. Across a table crowded by friends in some noisy Italian restaurant, Gillian had loudly announced how many hours of shopping Dave now owed her. After all, hadn’t she just sat through the rugby with him? (As had the dozen others sitting with them, a fact Gillian forgot to mention. I, too, had been at the rugby – did I now owe Gillian shopping time?) As Gillian spoke, Dave’s face became one of a man suffering through marriage counselling, sitting mute whilst his wife gleefully divulged his every indiscretion and failing over the past thirty years. A wife who’d faithfully treasured them in her heart, awaiting this moment of justification.

With an effort I crumpled the stiff envelope in my hand. Up until Gillian’s announcement, no one, including Dave, had the slightest idea he and Gillian were an item. Gillian had always been good at surprises.

My eyes watering, I stifled a sneeze and ran from the room. After the smell of paint, the recycled air in the corridor outside felt fresh against my face. Resting against the wall, I reluctantly opened Gillian’s card. If I didn’t read it now the mere thought of it would burn at me all night, and if I threw the card into my bag, unread, then my Dad’s voice would merely whisper into my conscience, ready to pounce when I collected my things in the morning.

I quickly perused a bad haiku alluding to frogs sitting silent amongst falling jasmine. On the other side was written, in Gillian’s flowing script: Just a quick note to see how you’re travelling. I’ve been thinking lately of the inquest, and I just know you’re the same. I’m always there if you need me, but I won’t embarrass you by mentioning it. Knew you’d just love the cover. Don’t you just wonder how long it takes these cute calves to realize they’re going to grow into fat lazy cows?

I tossed both card and envelope towards a nearby bin. I missed. Naturally. Not even my mother had ever thought me a cute calf, and I doubted falling jasmine was the appropriate metaphor for an inquest where everyone dressed straight from a TV set, ever ready for their close-up shot, (taken from a slanted angle, preferably in black and white). Not one of them had ever seen the rumpled Charles Laughton in Witness for the Prosecution, nor understood Gregory Peck’s quiet strength in To Kill a Mockingbird. The coroner’s finding proved spectacularly inept.

I picked up the card from the floor and carefully buried it under all the other rubbish at the bottom of the bin. A bit at a loss, I decided to head down to Admin. I had yet more paperwork to drop off; I’d been back to Admin every week since my arrival, for the people within delighted in sending me endless streams of paper to be filled in, signed and returned. I’d given up working out what purpose all these bits of paper served. Still, I may as well drop off the latest batch now rather than wait for the morning, when the place would be crowded and I’d be asleep on my feet. Besides, although my goal lay only in the outer echelons, (which was nowhere near the untouchable cupola), those who filled the place by day with their studiously inefficient work managed to make mere mortals like myself feel like trespassers. A visit by night might prove safer.

The false freshness of the air faded as I made my along the corridor. On this level, the floors were lined with a type of grey vinyl, which skidded under my shoes. A wooden railing ran the length of the wall, stopping only at doorways and on the entrance of other corridors. It lay cool and smooth beneath my hand, rubbed to a soft glisten by a thousand hands. Above me, the fluorescent lights flickered around the bodies of the moths and other insects enticed behind the opaque coverings.

A stop-start lift ride, another corridor, and finally I came to a halt outside a door. As I pulled my swipe card from my back pocket I felt something give, and I groaned on seeing the button of my jeans rolling at my feet. Perfect. At least the zipper still held up. With luck I might find a needle and thread back in the lab, or at worst a safety pin.

I pocketed the button and hung my swipe card about my neck. This piece of magic opened most anywhere in this place, and, as nearly everyone working here had one, made a mockery of the security system adorning so many doors. Doubling as an ID card, on principle I never hung it around my neck until I needed to, (the labs were never locked, and most doors were still open when I arrived to start work) and it was the first thing to be thrown into my bag when morning broke and I’d finished for the night.

I paused, swipe card mid-air towards the door. A most unexpected sound danced along the grimy walls: whistling. Real human whistling, not the echo of the wind as it haunted along tunnels and down lift shafts.

The culprit turned the corner, though hidden by a loaded trolley. I could see only a pair of whistling feet.

“Evening.” The feet halted beside me. “Here, let me get that for you.”

I heard the swipe of a card and the click of a lock, and then the pair of feet became a cleaner holding the door open for me. He reminded me vaguely of someone, a memory pirouetting elusively at the back of my thoughts. With his hair so blond and so short as to be nigh invisible, it took me a few moments to notice he sported a beard.


That voice, instantly recognizable, so unwanted. The last thing I’d expected to hear it pouring from the room. Gillian pushed past the young cleaner as if he were not there.

I struggled to reconcile this cicada shell of a woman with the it’s-just-puppy-fat girl who’d been two years ahead of me at school. All past softness had vanished, leaving behind a precise and painfully moulded framework. She obviously hadn’t tasted hot fat in years. The only part of Gillian to grow had been her voice, the tones becoming so ripe and fruity that, like a Caravaggio still life, they’d started rotting.

“Gillian.” I answered automatically as my some-time friend kissed the air nowhere near my cheek. Had she just left from putting the note in my pigeonhole? What other reason was there for her to be here? Surely she wasn’t lying in wait for me, especially as I hadn’t planned on swinging past Admin just now, just tonight.

“Here you go, this will fix it,” came a voice by my shoulder. “Just make sure to take it out when you’re finished.” Having slid a folded newspaper under the door to hold it open, the cleaner now pushed his trolley inside. Standing so close, I could see flicks of golden-red through his beard. Perhaps it was only the fluorescent light, but it gave him the air of a man who understood jazz.

He seemed of my age, but all the guys I knew were clean-shaven and suddenly seemed so young and, well, vulnerable, blessed with that swaggering confidence only immaturity can bestow.

“Heh, you can’t prop the door open – how are you!” continued Gillian, a hand on my arm to stop me following the bearded stranger into the room. Her heavily kohled eyes glistened at me. “You look pale. And wet.”

“Well, that’s what happens coming to work in a storm. I should’ve realised when I woke up earlier and saw all the flying ants.”

“What have they got to do with a storm?” Gillian said dismissively.

“I don’t know. But you often see them swarming, in that stillness which comes before a storm.”

Gillian snorted, but when she continued I thought her voice sounded carefully cheerful. “I was wondering when we’d catch up. I can’t believe we haven’t crossed paths in so long.”

“I’ve been busy. Working, and the like. And changing towns.” Even to me the answer sounded half-hearted. “So, ah, what exactly are you doing here?”

“Me?” Gillian almost squealed. “Why, I’ve been up here for months! Since not long after the,” and she paused and leant even closer, lowering her voice an octave as she continued in capitals, “The Inquest. Surely you got my letter?”

I shook my head, hoping to look vague instead of guilty. Since Dave’s death a stack of unopened mail had followed me wherever I went, until eventually I threw most of it away. I’d been swamped by more than my fair share of ersatz empathy. Anything looking like a sympathy card had gone the way of the dodo.

“I was so excited when I heard you were coming,” Gillian continued. “More than happy to approve your application.”

I was too busy juggling all the pieces into some sensible picture to find the energy to say anything. How could Gillian’s realm stretch to having control over my mindless job, up here?

“Don’t look so puzzled, just about everything comes across my desk,” Gillian said. “It was quite a promotion for me, coming up here. I can’t believe you didn’t get my letter. You must give me your email. Anyway,” her hand still firm on my arm as she finally steered the two of us into the room, “how are you going?”

“Well, considering I’ve just signed up to working endless nights...”

“Of course, you must be tired. Actually, I was meaning, since Jason.”

“Jason? That was quite a while ago now...”

“And what have you got planned?”

“Planned? With Jason?” I was now completely at a lost.

“For the anniversary of Dave’s passing. You need to do something. For resolution. So you can let go, and move on.”

Blazing lights seared across my brain: The Reason For Gillian’s Interest. Soon it would be a year, a time for caring clichés and glib phrases to be dropped for all to hear. Maybe then Gillian would leave me alone. Let me go, move on, so I could reach closure, or resolution, or whatever the vogue phrase would be.

As Gillian led the one-sided conversation along her own pathways, I in turn listened to the soft whistling coming from deeper in the room. The tune sounded old, one more suited to a piano accordion which remembered other days, when everyone lived on a farm beyond the mountains, and weddings were held in the village square under the shade of a spreading tree as flowers filled the air with age-old scents.

“You’re working late,” was the best I could muster when Gillian’s lecture halted. I noticed she still wore her blue-rimmed glasses. Glasses she’d proudly organised Jason into choosing. He’d called them not blue, but sapphire. Mysterious.

Gillian now took them off and ruffled her carefully crafted fringe into place. The fringe was new. Well, new since I’d had last seen her. With her glasses gone, Gillian’s intense stare – which even at school I’d found unsettling – vanished. Her eyelids (usually hidden by the frame) – drooped a little at the side, giving her a sad and gentle look. It completely altered her appearance, yet I couldn’t help wondering when Gillian last let herself feel a sadness.

I brusquely stopped my thoughts there and instead berated myself as Gillian continued to prattle. Little point in being bitchy simply because all the weight Gillian had lost had ended up on my own hips. Just Newton’s Law of the conservation of matter in action. Besides, simply because I thought the girl shallow wasn’t reason enough to see evil hovering around her. After all, (I continued in my father’s most righteous manner), my own life wasn’t one to hold up as a shining example to all.

“I had a few things to finish off,” Gillian said, “but I’m glad to catch you. I’ve been just too busy these past few weeks, and I thought you needed to settle in. I was surprised you hadn’t come to find me, but now I understand. Anyway, now you’re here, I’ve just got to tell you. I’m sure you’ll appreciate this far more than anyone else I’ve told so far.” Sitting on top of a convenient desk, Gillian pulled a notebook from her bag and began turning the pages with the caress of a lover. Her words, when she started speaking again, came a little more slowly, with a simple but condescending tone. After a moment I realized she was addressing the audience of the room, where, despite the hour, a few people still lingered.

“It happened a few weeks ago. I was back late one night – I hate to think how late it was! – when Professor Timbers came into the office. I’m sure you’ve heard me talk of him – he’s only the most senior man in the department, after the Dean. Anyway, we have a work-experience student with us at the moment, and Professor Timbers was reading through something the boy had done when, before I knew it, he was doubled over in fits of laughter. He literally had tears streaming down his face.” Gillian twirled her glasses in her hand as she spoke. “Honestly, I thought the man was going to have stroke.”

On hearing a snort, I glanced over to see the cleaner’s shoulders shaking as he struggled to tie a knot in a garbage bag. After pulling it from the bin, he began noisily re-arranging some boxes.

Gillian said nothing as the hand holding her glasses wove an elegant spell. “Here it is,” she finally pronounced.

“I have to get to work,” I said. I couldn’t do this. Not now. Hopefully never. The night was too young to be drawn into gossiping about the incompetence of people I’d never meet.

“As you like,” answered Gillian. “I’ve copied it down, so I’ll show you later.” She snapped her notebook shut. “When not so many people are about,” came the stage whisper, accompanied with a significantly raised eyebrow. “So, when shall we catch up for a chat?” Gillian continued as she put her glasses back on. “I suppose you’re too busy this week, and most of next week I’m...” she whipped out her pocket organiser. “Mmm, pretty booked up. Did I tell you I was taking art classes? The tutor gives out such energy. Every second Thursday up at the old TAFE building. How about lunch, say the fortnight after next?”

“Why don’t you call me a bit closer to the day?” I answered, well aware something far more important would crop up in Gillian’s life by then. Interestingly, she hadn’t mentioned Jason’s forthcoming visit. She must be saving it to use another time. “Besides,” I continued, “you know me, I rarely know what I’m doing one day to the next.”

“Sure,” answered Gillian, closing her organiser without making an entry. “Well, I’d best get home,” she announced, in a tone suggesting nonchalance. “By the way, how much study do you get done overnight?”

“Study?” I repeated, totally confused. Did everybody look at me and think, ‘there’s a girl who’s studying’? “Study for what?”

“Come on, we all know you’re working on your masters. You don’t have to make such a big secret out of it. Why else would you be doing nights?” Strangely, Gillian’s dismissive voice now held a tone I’d never heard from her before, a tone grovelling over the words, an honoured votive in the presence of The Holy Grail. As if one day she, too, would be worthy enough to study, and so pass through the door to an elite guild.

I said nothing, having nothing to say.

Her mission complete, Gillian once more air-kissed somewhere near my cheek. “See you when you’re off nights,” she waved as she left.

“So,” came the whistling voice from across the room, “where do you think that woman was sitting to see tears streaming down Professor Timbers’ face, bearing in mind the man was doubled over with laughter? Beggars the imagination.”

Before I could stumble an answer, a two-way radio spluttered forth orders, and with a nod the guy with the irritatingly familiar face disappeared from the room. I was relieved; he carried an unsettling air of happiness about him, as if those disappointments and bitterness and frustrations which had wormed a home into my soul had found no place in his.

At least Gillian had left without getting the email address she’d asked for; had she really tried to ring me earlier, she’d have realised my mobile had also changed.

Dutifully pulling the newspaper from under the door, I wandered deeper into Admin. I hated this room. Into it I poured all the frustration and futility carried from every place I’d ever worked. It accumulated all the ineptitude and inertia, all the ridiculous protocols and impracticalities permeating all large institutions.

With a look at my watch, (my faithful watch, still to be removed), I placed my papers in their allocated spot. As I turned I spied, near the far wall, a desk covered with piles of papers and spread sheets and books. Intriguingly, I couldn’t see a computer. Perhaps it lay buried. From this distance I could just make out a Picasso image of glasses and bushy eyebrows surrounded by the clutter. The glasses nodded at me but, aside from the creak of the chair, said nothing. There’s always someone here, I thought. Always someone watching. Even if, like me, he’s just another nameless faces amongst many, grinding his mind to dust on the treadmill of daily ritual.

On that cheerful note, I headed out of the room to begin the rituals of my own night.

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