The Footstep Thief

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Chapter 5

I closed my eyes, my hand creeping out to the wall as I walked. I felt tired. So very tired.

And my pants kept falling off.

I fumbled once more with the stiff tape, now a makeshift belt for my jeans. I’d already cut my fingers a few times in the struggle. About an hour after my button fell off the zipper proved too old to take the strain of holding everything together. I’d searched the lab in vain for safety pins, instead making do with squeezing some binding tape through the belt hoops. Fortunately, my shirt hung to my hips, hiding the folly.

Forgetting it was summer, the building had grown chilly in the bewitching hour, and I wrapped my cardigan tight around me, an extra barrier to my gaping zipper and flabby belly. Under the whistle of the wind along the lift shafts, a faint mechanical hum echoed down the hall. A vending machine stood in front of a window, which in turn opened onto blackness. Neither light from the stars, nor from the street, filled that blank void. I wondered if the rain still fell; entombed within these buildings I rarely had any idea of the outside world. Whole days could come and go, unmarked save for work and sleep.

Resting my head against the cool glass of the machine I scanned the foods on offer. Each packet lay caught in a bubble of faintly glowing neon. Twisties tonight, I mused, or maybe fruit pastels for a change? Neither stomach nor brain had any idea of the time. I didn’t even feel hungry, just fragile enough to need sugar and junk before huddling under worn blankets in front of the TV in this mythical common room Melody had told me about. With luck, the TV would have Foxtel, and The Equaliser would be showing on some channel. Or maybe even The Thunderbirds. Both had been a staple this past year, when I wasn’t watching one of my old movies. A pity it wasn’t Saturday; then at least Rage would be on. My list of jobs almost done, I just wanted half an hour or so to myself, to gather the strength to finish off my work and find my thoughts as they floated in their hazy shroud. Until tomorrow night, when the whole cycle would begin again.

Besides, a nap in the common room was a good excuse to get out of the lab. The smell had given me a headache within a few hours of starting the night; now my brain felt ready to melt out my ears.

The Twistie packet tumbled into the tray, a sharp noise in the silence. I stared at the coloured shapes as I poured them into my hand. In the sterile void of the corridor, each Twistie lay gold and resplendent in my palm. Even the chemical smell seemed fresh.

Since leaving school my brother and I had spent a lifetime pouring coins into every vending machine we could find. No matter where either of us studied or worked, we knew which machine sold what, what chips were best for mid-afternoon, how all the different lollies tasted. We’d even discovered machines serving hot drinks, and through much trial and error had learnt which brew of ersatz coffee was perfect for three in the morning. How often had Dave talked of going to Japan, just to be in vending machine heaven? Someone who knew someone who’d met someone just back from a holiday there spoke of what was to become my brother’s Holy Grail: vending machines selling underwear.

All these things to keep hold of our sanity, as the world around us turned dowdy. After so many years being taught by nuns, it didn’t take rocket science to realise working in a bundle of soulless buildings truly was Hell. A place where God was not. After a while it was easiest to stop noticing the beauty flowing from my world, and, without really thinking about it, accept that the question of doing good (or even doing anything of relevance) was itself irrelevant. Neither of us had ever learnt to cover our actions with gaudy clothing. Unlike Mum, I added automatically as I bit into my first Twistie. Discovering vending machines helped the two of us ignore the cockroaches under foot, the inept bureaucracy, and walls smeared the colour of the dirt.

Choosing between fruit pastels and butter menthols kept Dave busy as the powers that be pondered whether my brother was really one of them, despite his First Class Honours. Things began well, then Dave proved too bright for his own good. At first everyone loved him. Yet not long after his triumphal entry, the underground murmurs swelled to become a mob calling for their own Barabbas to replace him.

For when least expected, Dave had a habit of quoting long-dead poets. Such as Rumi. In a way as if the words did not belong to him at all. As if he did not know he spoke them.

And rumour had it he played the cello.

Now the silence of the sleeping building lay heavily across my shoulders. The vending machine continued its quiet hum, patiently waiting for its next visitor. As I turned away the makeshift tape started to lose its valiant struggle to hold my jeans steady. Twisties still in hand, I hoisted everything northwards, pulled my cardigan snug, then wrapped its bulky belt around the lot and hoped for the best. Trying not to imagine how I must look to anyone unlucky enough to pass me in the corridor, I boldly headed for the stairs at the far end of the corridor, munching on my prize as I went.

I continued my odyssey, stumbling on nearing a bend in the corridor. Brain and feet, it seemed, were no longer on speaking terms.

Beep-beep-beep. Beep-beep-beep.

The squall of my pager prised the barrenness of the corridor apart. Something in the tone, that piercing ‘read me now do nothing else’ tone, always left my stomach lurching. Nothing good ever came from being paged; it was usually a problem no one else wanted. Being tied to a pager actually made me look forward to being old and demented, so every morning I could throw one out the nursing home window – and in the afternoon, flush another down the toilet.

As I looked at the message, however, I grinned. Time for a java, it read.

Of course, I thought. Kayl. I hadn’t realized he was working tonight.

I still hadn’t worked out what Kayl’s job entailed. I liked to think of him as a spy, but since he always wore a uniform I assumed he was a nurse. However, I’d yet to see the tall and lanky lad do anything to support this theory. He usually just sat chatting to someone or other, his dark wavy hair caught back in a loose ponytail. Having grown up first in Hawaii and then Belgium before coming to Australia to finish high-school, Kayl looked like a sun-tanned vampire who existed, it seemed, on a night-time diet of cigarettes and coffee. Fluent in three languages, he’d been toying with the idea of flatting with some friends in Paris before starting work here. I don’t know why he didn’t choose Paris. Surely any sane person would choose Paris.

Still, of all the people working in this conglomeration of buildings, it was Kayl who remembered my name. Plus, he never came to work without a coffee plunger, and by the end of my first week of nights he’d achieved the impossible by getting me to like real coffee, the type Jason had always termed ‘pretentious’. (Jason prided himself on recognizing the brand of any instant coffee after only one sip.)

After trotting up four flights of stairs, I paused to catch my breath. It took all my weight to push open the stairwell door. I then made my way along the corridor, before using my swipe card to pass through some glass doors into the hospital, which occupied one floor of this building. Every time I came here, I thought anew about how strange a place it was for a hospital. I had no idea how it managed to make any money and survive, being only vaguely aware of the convoluted funding which linked the place via yet another school of the university to a multinational company with more than a passing interest in pharmaceuticals. Once upon a time the hospital had sheltered under the cupola, but over coffee one night Kayl revealed how Administration had lusted over the old building since mid-last century. Unable to close the hospital, in a grand coup shortly after the new millennium a senior branch of Admin had staked their claim to the place by relocating the hospital here. At first it had spread over three floors, but with time had slowly whittled down to this one floor, as if the powers-that-be snaffled ever more space as each patient died.

Beckoned by the lights of the nursing station, I left the relative darkness of the doorway and made my way to the desk. I opened my filo-fax (tucked conveniently, as always, under my arm), pulled out my fountain pen and drew a line through two items on my to-do list. A fair amount of chatter came from further down the corridor.

“Ah, Stephanie, so you got my message.” Kayl emerged from a distant door to plonk himself into a swivel chair at the desk. Even sitting, he was nearly as tall as me. “We’ve just been hiding from the supervisor for a while. Yesterday the damn woman went on for some twenty minutes about how I made the beds. ‘It wasn’t like that in my day...’ God, how I hate that expression.” Kayl spun himself round and round in the chair, venting his frustration into ever larger circles while trying not to get his long legs entangled in the wheels.

Watching him, I wondered how it would feel to be tall and lanky. Something I’d never know. “Who’s your supervisor tonight?” I asked.


I shook my head. “Don’t think I know her.”

“Oh, you must’ve seen her around. You know, one of those who ‘yes sir, no sir’ to the bosses, then turns around and gives the rest of us hell. She even has those bosoms which come round the corner before she does.”

“You know, I’ve always wanted a pair of those,” I said as I popped the lid back on my pen. “It’s the only word to describe them, isn’t it? Bosoms.”

“Could probably buy them on eBay these days.”

“I wouldn’t. Never know where they’ve been.”

Kayl gave me a lazy smile. “Come on,” he said, leaning over the desk and grabbing my hand, “come and get something to eat.”

He led me to a room halfway down the corridor. Inside, a dozen people circled a table covered with food, making the occasional dive to emerge laden with a conquest.

“Wow! I thought I could hear voices in here,” I said. “What’s all this for?”

One of the nurses, Debbie, giggled. I’d met her a few times; one of the many Kayl was always chatting to. “Oh, it’s my last night shift ever,” Debbie said, “so we decided to have a party.”

“Listen, do you mind standing guard?” Kayl asked as he handed me a plate piled with food. “Francis is on the prowl, and if she sees this we’ll be in for it.” He walked over to a side bench and became busy with a coffee machine.

“Why on earth would she do that?” I asked. Suddenly ravenous, I moved to the door and started eating. “Yum, this is great. What is it?”

“Whiskey chicken and rice,” said another. “Made by my own fair hand. As were these curry puffs,” the unknown voice continued as the curry puffs in question appeared on my plate, followed by some nan bread. “Let me know what you think.”

Surprised, I looked into the face of the whistling cleaner. Once again a memory tapped at my shoulder, but before I could even thank him he’d gone from the room. Whistling danced in from the corridor as Debbie started on about how she really felt about Francis.

“She’s just jealous. Joining in a party means actually talking to us. She claims she has far too much to do and couldn’t possibly spare the time to sit down and have a coffee, let alone eat something.”

I leant against the doorjamb so I could keep watch for this Francis but be part of the room at the same time. I also had things to do, plus the hope of a nap pending, but I didn’t want to leave. The whistling cleaner had vanished.

“It’s because of her assessment,” piped in Kayl over the noise of the machine. “Didn’t you hear?” he continued. “She went and saw a – I think it was a naturopath or something – anyway, they did this test which tells you the real age of all the cells in your body. You’ll never guess what it was!” Everyone else started giggling as I shook my head. “Eighty!”

I almost chocked on a curry puff as the rest of the room cracked up laughing. “You’re kidding me, right?” I said, wiping away a tear. I peered down the hall to make sure no one was coming. The whistling cleaner had vanished. “She actually paid someone money to be told she looks, what, twice her age? And let me guess, if she follows a special, expensive diet and attends the naturopath regularly, her body will get younger and she’ll feel fantastic.”

“She’s someone I won’t miss,” Debbie said.

Kayl handed me a cup of coffee. “I’m afraid it’s only skinny milk. You’re lucky we’ve even got that. Francis keeps trying to steal it and replace it with soy,” he said as he dropped into a nearby chair. This one lacked wheels, and he had to content himself with sitting almost still.

“God forbid,” said another. “I drank that poison last Lent. I lost count of how many souls I set free from Purgatory.”

Everyone laughed, and I took a sip of coffee. At such an hour, I found the simple warmth of holding a mug in my hand magical.

“This is great,” I said. “If I donate some coffee beans, can I be a regular?”

“You can be a regular anytime, darling,” said Kayl. “You’re one of the few people around here to actually speak to us.”

“Unlike that Dom Frost,” continued Debbie. “Had the nerve to tell me last week I wasn’t trying hard enough.”

“Dom?” I spluttered. The coffee must’ve gone down the wrong way. “Dom Frost? He works here?”

Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant. I’d suddenly woken up in the midst of a classic horror movie, where the baddie looks dead but everyone knows he’s alive and growing stronger. Everyone but me, too busy soliloquizing to notice the resurrected evil one moving in for the kill. But I’d seen Dom go, promoted out of harming me or Dave any more. “Must just be the same name,” I muttered unconvincingly to my coffee.

“God, I hope there’s only one,” Debbie said. “Wreaks havoc and destruction at all hours. He was here earlier this evening, yelling about something trivial which happened two days ago.” She walked over to a computer and, using its blank screen as a mirror, pulled a lip-gloss from her pocket and applied a generous coat of burnt red.

“We’ve had to suffer him for a few months now,” Kayl said. “Not sure where he came from, but, shit I wish he’d go back.”

I said nothing, concentrating instead on sipping my coffee and trying not to drown in a swirl of emotions. Sweat had frosted on my spine. Despite coming back here, I’d thought it all finished: Dom and his human collateral damage, Dom and his Book of Death. I moved here simply to explore the past. I wanted to read musty tomes and decipher arcane spells, so as to understand why Dave had disappeared; I had no plans to actually touch anything, or, even worse, to let what had happened touch me. I never planned on facing Dom again. I couldn’t. Seeing Gillian tonight was torment enough.

A patter of feet fell into my despair, and I glanced down the corridor as everyone in the room started hiding plates of food in the cupboards. “It’s okay,” I said, for the woman running down the corridor didn’t bounce in the way the supervisor described by Kayl would bounce, should she deign to run. “I don’t think it’s, what’s her name, Francis.”

Kayl stuck his head around the door. “Relax everyone, it’s Nellie,” he said. “Why on earth would she be running?”

A stack of bodies left the room and made their way to the main desk as Nellie trotted the last bit of the corridor, her torch waving crazy patterns across the floor.

“She’s here!” Nellie panted, coming to a halt and leaning against the desk to get her breath. “The Grey Nurse. I felt her! God I need a drink.”

“Goodness,” said Debbie, “I thought someone was being murdered by the look on your face. I’ve never seen anyone run here.”

“Whereabouts?” Kayl asked. He’d reclaimed the seat on wheels and was once more scuttling back and forth across the floor.

“Up past the old building. I went over to Three B on my break to see, anyway, it doesn’t matter, but everyone was all a flutter. The same old story. Someone caught a glimpse of a nurse in this really old fashioned uniform. Gemma swears she felt a presence in the room, noticed a cup of tea by her desk she couldn’t remember making, and of course that just set everyone off. And just now, as I was walking back, something brushed past me and I nearly screamed. I couldn’t see anything, but I didn’t stop to look.”

“You know,” I offered, “I’ve never found anyone who’s seen her. I mean really seen her. And no one can tell me who she was.” I knew I was blabbering, but anything to chase Dom from my thoughts.

“Oh,” said Kayl between scuttles across the floor, “that’s easy. She was a nurse working here in the sixties. Back when the old building used to be a hospital.”

“Oh, long before that,” Debbie said. “Before the war. And she was a nun.”

“It’s such a great story,” Nellie butted in. “You know, she was in love with some guy who never came back from the war, or she wasn’t allowed to leave the order, or something. Anyway, she died of a broken heart.”

“No, that’s not it,” said another, “she hung herself. In the great stairwell, under the cupola. That’s why, whenever she’s around, the light goes on in the old part of the hospital.”

“Nonsense,” said Kayl. “She can’t have hung herself. Whenever anyone sees her, she’d always doing something nice, like making a cup of tea or answering a phone. Ghosts who kill themselves wander around being horrible to everyone.”

I concentrated on sipping my coffee.

“I heard she slipped on the stairs,” another voice offered as everyone slowly drifted back to the party food, leaving only Kayl to keep me company at the desk.

“It’d make a good murder mystery, though,” said Kayl.

“What would?”

“The Grey Nurse. A great whodunit. People getting murdered, the Grey Nurse exposing the true murderer. Sounds a bit clichéd, though.”

“Maybe the Grey Nurse could be the murderer. Or someone dressed as the Grey Nurse.” I finished the last of my coffee. “I didn’t know you were into murder mysteries,” I added.

“Used to devour them as a kid. Stayed up all hours, reading them by torch-light under the covers when Mum thought I was asleep. Not now, though. Don’t really read anymore. Never seem to have the time.” He scuttled his chair from one end of the desk to the other and back again. “But I’m always on the look-out for the perfect mystery. So I can write my own.”

“Really? I’d no idea you were a writer.” Every time I met him, the guy had another surprise.

“Oh, I’m not. But one day, with the perfect mystery, who knows?” For a change, Kayl started spinning his chair in circles as he scuttled back and forth. “Maybe I could work in the name changes going on around here, so people end up on the wrong floor and get themselves murdered.”

“What name changes?” I asked, resting my empty coffee cup on the desk. I picked up my half-finished plate of whiskey chicken. It was really good.

“Oh, all the levels were re-named at the beginning of the year. Before you came. Management hired a group of consultants; rumour is it cost a fortune. Took them six months to work it out, and now everyone keeps getting lost, because they only changed the floor levels in this building. So level four here equals five over in the Red Building, and level three in Jameson’s. Brilliant.” Kayl spun his chair a few times for emphasis. “Hey, I know, how about, once everything has been renamed, the Grey Nurse is the only one who knows where everything is? Only she can find the clues left behind. That’s how she catches the murderer.”

“I’d really love to find her,” I said. “The Grey Nurse. Just a glimpse.”

Lifting his gangly frame from out of the seat, Kayl sat on the desk next to me. “So, how’s it going sharing with Bradley and Louise?” he asked.

“Oh, I think I’m settling in,” I answered. Somehow, I didn’t think that was what Kayl meant, but I didn’t know what else to say. “I’ve yet to meet Louise, though.”

“Oh, you’ll like her. Sweet little thing. Had dinner with my folks tonight – Mum filled her to bursting point, then insisted on her sleeping over, as she looked so tired. Since I moved out a few months ago, my Mum now allows such things. Anyway, she’s flying off to Perth the day after tomorrow for a few days. Louise, that is, not my Mum. Something to do with her job; I didn’t quite follow it. I don’t see her that much myself. Besides, it’s not like it’s that serious,” he continued in his lazy voice.

“No? I thought...” I suddenly found myself on the wrong side of a confessional.

“My ex has just started working here, and seeing him around... listen, don’t tell Bradley, but I’ve told him I’m working after I take Louise to the airport. I’m meant to catch up with him at a prayer meeting, but I’d like to see my ex instead, while Louise is away.”

“You mean, your ex is a... er... works here? With you? Isn’t that awkward?” He, I thought, I could swear Kayl said his ex was a he.

“Not actually here, with me. Over in another block. But we’re just catching up for coffee, just to tie up some loose ends.”

I rubbed my suddenly tired eyes. This was all I needed, another guy disembowelling a tangled love life all over me. “You want me to lie to Bradley? I’m a hopeless liar. Especially to someone carrying a clipboard and majoring in Biblical Studies.”

Kayl smiled. A goofy smile, perfected to melting hearts and getting its own way. “No, not lie, just not tell him the truth.”

“Christ, Kayl, what do you think I am, a Jesuit?” Still, I couldn’t help but grin back. The guy’s smile was infectious. “Listen, your love life’s none of my business,” I continued. “God knows mine is bad enough. But I might just rock up to your next prayer meeting, simply to watch you keep a sincere and holy face.”

“Oh, I’ll be wearing one, don’t you worry. But you should come. Bible study’s a great place for pick-ups. I went there chasing someone else and met Louise.”

A phone rang and Kayl slowly reached over to pick up the receiver. “I owe you a dinner,” he drawled. “Or better still, come have dinner with my folks. And I think you’d make a great Jesuit.”

On reaching the lift I paused; where exactly had Melody said this place was? From memory she’d just mentioned somewhere in the depths of the building. I was pretty sure she meant the building where our labs were – so, theoretically, I should be able to link over to it from here. I think. Besides, underground they must all be the same building. My fuzzy mind had no idea.

I pressed a button to go down. It was a start.

“The wedding’s only three months away now,” came a familiar voice, “and there’s still so much to do.”

“Beg yours?” I said, pausing in the perpetual struggle with my jeans. (I just hoped everything would hold together until morning.) Debbie, the nurse who was leaving, had materialised beside me. “I didn’t know you were getting married,” I added, fishing around for something to say.

She now leaned across me and pressed the lift button a few more times. “Oh, that’s why I’m leaving,” she said. “There’s only a few months to go now. The bridesmaids’ dresses are finished, of course,” she continued in one breath. “Naturally, the dressmaker still hasn’t finished mine. She says brides always lose so much weight before the big day, so she’ll wait until the last minute to finish mine. Mind you, it’s not like I have that much to spare.” She leant over and pressed the lift button a few times once more.

The sound of whistling, followed a moment later by the arrival of the short-haired-whiskey-chicken-cooking-cleaner, saved me from deigning to answer. I wished I knew why seeing this guy tickled at my memory – perhaps an old movie? He looked so different to everyone I knew that surely I’d remember him had we met. He obviously had no memory of me. He certainly didn’t look at me as he came to a halt beside the lifts. Then again, no one ever did. As Debbie continued her prattle on her upcoming wedding, the cleaner raised an eyebrow at no one while slowly rocking back and forth on his heels.

“I’ve just booked out the hairdresser for a whole morning next month. The entire bridal party’s having a trial run of hair and makeup.” Debbie’s voice burrowed into my thoughts. The lift door opened, but the running monologue continued, punctuated only by the squelch of shoes against the concrete floor. I wished I was still drinking coffee with Kayl and discussing the Jesuits; little wonder they threw a party to celebrate the fact this woman was leaving.

“Basement please,” Debbie announced to the ether, then leaned over and grabbed my arm. “I need a smoke,” she whispered. “I’ve told my fiancé I’ve given up, so I can only smoke at work. So I suppose this makes it the last one. Probably.”

The cleaner stood closest to the button panel. He glanced at me, nodded, then with a swipe of his ID card put the lift on express. Although he remained the proverbial picture of innocence, I guessed this was more to be rid of Debbie than any particular need to reach the basement in a rush. To drown out the pernicious voice I tried sneaking a glimpse at the guy’s ID card. Part of me hoped it read Erasmus; I’d never met an Erasmus. However, since I stood at the back of the lift all I could see was a picture of Gandalf taped over the guy’s own photo.

“Then there’s our nails,” continued the soon-to-be-wed Debbie, blissfully ignorant of being ignored. “I was thinking of a French polish, you know, something subtle. But you can get such pretty acrylic ones nowadays, which are really quite tasteful. Though I’m not sure whether to go for the classic curved nail, or the blunter edge, which, although I prefer, I just don’t know if it will work so well for a wedding.”

Jason had always talked like this, whenever others were around. He included everyone as he talked, his voice loud enough to interrupt all thoughts. Even on the phone, as he walked down a main street somewhere, or the corridors of whatever institute now sponsored him, who could not help but notice his grand strides, the pause, the tilt of his head to search the sky (or ceiling) for inspiration? Then he’d turn again, and talk more loudly and walk more grandly as people turned to watch. Jason had raised such behaviour to an art form; in Debbie, it was simply annoying.

Gandalf-cum-Erasmus whipped out a notebook and started writing. I noticed he used a fountain pen – and I thought I was the only person here to use one. Another arrogant idea destroyed. Catching me staring at him, he smiled and made the notion of chatting with his hand as Debbie continued talking to the lift door. I blushed and looked away, pulling open my filo-fax to hide my fluster.

“Imagine the disaster if I get a pimple!” Debbie said, leaning over and covering my book with her hands. “It’d ruin the day – not to mention the photos. Do you think the photographer could touch them up?”

I simply stared back, shocked by her rudeness, but she kept her hands covering my to-do list as she prattled, oblivious. The lift-doors opened before things became awkward, but her prattle followed me from out into the hall and through the swish of a set of plastic doors. The words burrowed so deeply into my tired brain I couldn’t even escape into a movie. I couldn’t even think of one. I did notice, however, that Gandalf-cum-Erasmus chose wisely to stay behind.

“Oh, I forgot, I have to go to Preston section first,” I said, wheeling around and heading in the opposite direction. Searching for the Common Room could wait. Heading this way I could cross through to the other building on this level, and so be far, far away from where ever Debbie was planning to smoke. “Good luck with the wedding,” I offered as I trotted away, trying not to run.

A few bends of a corridor, and the voice chewing through my thoughts finally withered away. Just to be sure, I ruthlessly pushed open a nearby door into a stairwell. From a lifetime of old samurai movies I’d learnt evil spirits can float only in straight lines. Hence this place was their perfect abode, with its Euclidean geometry of corridors and vertical stairwells. But somewhere in the labyrinth God had become lost; I doubted He ever visited this small and petty place. No wonder, then, He never heard my prayers.

I tugged my tired cardigan tighter as I turned into another corridor. Halfway along I passed a set of legs standing on a ladder, the rest of the body apparently swallowed by the roof. A guy stood beside the ladder, handing up some cables into the gaping hole. The sound of a drill came from further down the floor.

Some desks rattled past. The workmen pushing them nodded to me as they went by. Why on earth they were moving desks at such an hour – was it so no one would notice and complain?

Another stairwell, and I paused rather sheepishly for breath. Two flights of stairs and my heart began dancing a samba. A peripatetic samba. Struggling to quiet my rasps, I ruthlessly jogged up the last flight, where the only light worked in spasms. A bit like the never seen Grey Nurse, it seemed I now spent too much of my life wandering this place on my own and in the dark. Pushing open a door, I made my way to a forgotten corner, where a vending machine stood guard beside another door. Like the opening of a grim fairy tale, large white letters warned any passerby that Use Of This Door Will Lead To INSTANT DISMISSAL.

With a swipe of my ID card, I tempted fate and pushed open towards forbidden fruit.

A wrought-iron bridge stretched from the fifth floor of this building to the sixth floor of another, where the two buildings almost touched. As few people came this way even in daylight hours, this old fashioned, impractical route offered a rare taste of freedom from the black hole of work. Especially when working nights. It’d been a favourite refuge of Dave’s, and luckily he’d shown it to me. I would never have discovered it on my own.

I took a deep breath, and stood immersed in a world of reds and violets, golds and azure. At night the smells became a living colour. Judging from the flaking paint, the flowers in the railing had once been red, and maybe the rest of the swirling iron two different tones of green. Through the iron lace beneath my feet I could glimpse the asphalt below, lit by a stray light streaming through a window of the building. The bridge, however, was mostly in darkness. The downpour which had washed me to work had now vanished. A fat moon, a few days from the full, floated across a break in the clouds to a chorus of frogs and crickets.

I rested my elbows on the still-damp railing, enjoying the caress of fresh air. Here I could escape the miasma of despair oozing from even the walls inside. Here I could be strong and not think of Jason. At least until I got home.

“Was hoping you’d make it out here tonight,” Dave said in greeting. “Hope I didn’t wake you.”

“No, just having a break. Been busy, though.” I paused, wondering whether to mention Dom; but may be the others were wrong, maybe it was another Dom. After all, I hadn’t actually seen him, and, with the height and build of an ex-rugby player gone rapidly to fat, he was not an easy man to miss. He’d always reminded me of a hangman, with much the same intellectual capacity. He’d once enthused to Dave about what a great idea kidneys were, as if only just learning of their existence. Somewhere in the grand plan guiding the cosmos a man such as Dom must have a role, but for me he remained the man only a hangman-mother could love.

What I couldn’t work out, despite many a night trying, was how Dom did it. Dom, whose stupidity was infamous. Although the man was nefarious, he was too short sighted to plan such a deed. Somehow he’d fluked upon Dave’s research – but to actually get it published under his own name, with no questions asked? Was his Book of Death really that powerful? Rumour ran how it now, after so many years, held every misdemeanour and error made by anyone in every faculty his long fingers touched, and as his wealth had led him to sit on so many boards, he touched many.

But the main question remained – why bother? Research had never been the man’s forte, nor did he need it. He had wealth, contacts, and a knighted father.

Not even Gillian knew the answer. Gillian who collected every leftover, storing them away for they all added up towards a juicy meal. A meal she would later serve to everyone with such authority, accompanied by a conviction that was repeated along the gossip networks, until, in everyone’s memory, things really had happened in that way. No one questioned her validity.

But this, what had happened with Dave, was a thing Gillian never spoke of, not with confidence.

Besides, should Dave know Dom was back, he’d only worry. For me. So I stood silent, saying nothing to the brother to whom I’d always told everything, even as he disappeared.

The silence of the night settled comfortably around our shoulders, and the scent of late jasmine lingered in the air. A faint shimmer danced along the horizon. I hadn’t realised the hour; behind all these buildings, dawn was coming. So much for my planned nap, or even discovering the common room. Through the trees I could just glimpse the city. From here, it sounded distant, magical, hiding all those things, all those fights and accidents and illness and misery which flood the world by day. A city of seething souls, desperate to be unique and demanding special attention, but so scared to be alone. A world of middle-management, but with no one wanting to be average.

If only I were on a beach, watching the sun glide slowly from the waters. Instead, the lights of the city skyline blinked back at me. They held no answers.

I turned to my brother. “Any idea how many times you blink in a minute?”

“Christ, Steph, what sort of question’s that?” I could hear his yawn. “Those paint fumes have addled your brain.”

“Come on, it’s the sort of question you used to love.” Mum had always said life could change with the blink of an eye. (So be grateful for what you’ve got. For what others have done for you. People like your parents.) I tilted back my head and stared at the stars sprinkled above me in the still dark sky. How many blinks since I was born, giving how many chances for things to change? Probably more than the stars sailing across the curtain of heaven, yet nothing – and no one – had ever come to save me. With a glacier’s crushing slowness, life’s languid limbs had encircled me from in-utero, impervious to anything I might want for myself. Looking back over the years, over the how many unknown number of blinks, I knew my feet had been guided here, regardless that I still wasn’t quite sure where here was, and that I had no idea what I wanted, only I was pretty definite this wasn’t it.

“Well, twenty thousand a day seems to ring a bell,” Dave finally said.

“Really? I’m impressed. Well, let’s say twenty four thousand to make it a bit easier, to give us one thousand blinks an hour. Round it down to nine hundred, to divide by sixty, that’s six into ninety, gives one carry the three, five – fifteen a minute, which is about one blink every four seconds.”

“What about when you’re asleep?” My brother now sounded vaguely interested. “You don’t blink when you’re asleep. Unless you sleep with your eyes open. And even then, I’m not too sure.”

“Ah, good point. Well, then, how about twelve hours of sleep, to average out between babies and adults, which gives, roughly, a blink every eight seconds. A chance to change your life every eight seconds. And that’s probably a gross underestimate.”

“And you think I’m studying too much. When was the last time you got out into the real world?”

“At least it’s stopped raining here,” I said, partly in way of an apology.

“I’ve been inside all day,” Dave said. “Buggered if I know what the weather’s like.”

I turned my back on the distant town and leant against the railing. “The cupola light’s still on,” I offered. “The Grey Nurse must still be about.”

Yet as I spoke the light disappeared. I wondered who’d seen the Grey Nurse tonight, who she’d helped. “Oh, she’s gone. The light’s off,” I said.

“Perhaps she’s just trying to lower her carbon footprint,” Dave answered. “Anyway, I’m off to bed. With a bit of luck I can squeeze in another hour of shut-eye before starting again in the morning. You?”

“Oh, I still have a few things to do.” An early breeze had woken, bringing a queasy pre-dawn mist which sluiced around us, hiding the moon. I closed my eyes, trying to stop my brain from whirling. As Jason had (so often) said, the fault was mine. I wasn’t blinking enough.

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