I woke with a start. I’d fallen asleep where I sat, my head on the desk. The room was ablaze with light, and now I had a crick in my neck. I reached out to my almost untouched cup of tea. The cup was cold.
I rubbed my eyes and thought about breakfast. Perhaps some food would help my aching head. My loyal watch showed I still had an hour to go. Despite having shut the doors, the smell of paint swirled around my ankles. It’d crept into my brain as I dozed, fingering every synapse until even blinking hurt.
My alcove of work resided in a corner of the main lab. Half enclosed by two walls of glass, it was but a dozen paces one way, half a dozen the other. My chair was next to the one solid wall, and I looked through into the darkness of the lab. At night, only the occasional flashing lights from the different machines broke through the unremitting black shadows. Even my nook lay in half-darkness, for the only lights I turned on were the lamp at my desk, plus a few night-lights. I preferred working this way. When the lights from the various computers and machines flashed around me I felt like a minion on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise as the vessel boldly went where no one had gone before. Or maybe an underling working on a remote site in the desert (these places were always in the desert, usually somewhere in New Mexico) at one of those labs dedicated to searching the stars for signs of extraterrestrial life. A light would flash – a red light, naturally – signaling that tonight the aliens, tired of waiting for Captain Kirk, had decided to make first contact themselves, and in the wee hours of the morning an unnamed and forever forgotten minor actor stares at the said flashing red light, the first human to realise the world has changed forever.
These labs also gave me a coat of calmness to wear. In many ways the life of a night worker is no different to someone lying awake in the wee hours, staring at the darkness of a ceiling as time passes slowly through the room; shadows of great profundity fall over the most prosaic of things. By comparison, this labyrinth ran to its own rhythm of darkness and light. Once used to the inherent strangeness of the place, its placid air put all else in perspective. I’d quickly learnt every noise, so even now few sounds startled me; the only thing to have proved a true puzzle was the faint beep of a freezer door not quite shut. Plus, I now had the added bonus of working where – the time-gods willing – I could wander freely and discover nooks and crannies all of my own, to find places untouched by memories from my past. In such places I had no need to weave my fantasies.
What was it Dave had talked about as I drove here? Something to do with a knight who renounced his earthly ways and enclosed himself in a castle, condemning his wife to live out her years in a convent. What had happened to that poor woman’s footsteps? Even her name was gone. And the Grey Nurse – no one recalled her name, or who she really was. Yet she left a mark here. Some saw her (but always only a glimpse), others felt her; everyone here knew about her. What did she see, as she wandered these corridors? My guess was she saw a lot.
Tacked to the wall beside me were some sketches only a child could do, with scrawls of Mummy, Daddy, Kia and possibly Johnnie attached to the figures. Kia looked like a dog, or maybe a very fat cat. Staring at these portraits from a happy family I thought instead about the Grey Nurse. About where she might be tonight. Can a ghost leave any footprints?
A few books lay scattered across my desk. Most nights I had some music, or one of my movies, quietly playing in the background, but for some reason tonight I’d opted for silence. In my glass bubble I could hear every noise from the lab. Every beep and peep, the rustle of papers or the whirl of a fan, the spin of mice in their wheels, or those nocturnal creaks of a place which so often sound like a footfall. They proved remarkably peaceful, and never unsettling. I was but a visitor here. At night the lab belonged to itself, doing all those things it did when alone, but happy to let me watch. The place understood me; it knew I was here of a night, yet let me walk though, unseen, and, like the Grey Nurse, leave no footprint.
Which was lucky. For were I to leave any mark, those not scuffled and trampled into oblivion by the myriad of people who passed the same way would simply be erased by Gillian. I doubted it was intentional; suck people simply smother everything beneath them.
A cup of tea later, I pushed aside some papers on my desk to make room for the newspaper I’d stolen from the tea room. As I sat down I brushed some stray hair from my eyes and turned towards one of the drab windows. Dawn, peeping around the curtain of the night, had begun painting a touch of softness on that heavy drape, and through the grimy glass the morning star beckoned. I’d survived. Somehow, dawn always brings an air of magic. She brushes the sky with hope, filling the day with the promise of slumber. She drives away that damp ash which settles over me each evening as I drive to work and witness the world around me, the real world, readying itself for the night. Every open door which spills warm light onto the street as I drive past serves only to make my car colder.
As if touched by a passing ghost, I shivered and snuggled into my frayed cardigan. All heat had fled from my body.
“My, you look tired.”
I was tired, too tired to be surprised. I looked up to the now familiar voice. “What are you doing in here, Bradley?”
“Oh, I promised Louise I’d come in early and bring Kayl some breakfast, so I thought I may as well pop in to see how you’re travelling. Besides, I always wanted to have a look in here. All these machines with their flashing lights. Smells, though. Bad night?” Bradley pulled over a chair and settled next to me without waiting for the answer, putting his faithful clipboard on my desk. As always, his clothes were crisp, he looked clean and sincere, and his too many teeth were all very white. Even in the half-light of the Starship Enterprise he glistened.
From that afternoon when he’d appeared unannounced in my doorway, Bradley had irritated me in some vague way: this ongoing chaffing was the most emotion I’d felt since Dave’s death. Nearly everything about Bradley annoyed me, and the effort I wasted thinking about his faults helped me ignore how I now lived in the homeliest place I’d known since those summer holidays staying with my aunt.
“Thank the Lord my days of nights are over,” he continued, flicking through a few pages of his clipboard.
“Can you say that?”
“What? Thank the Lord?”
“No, days of nights.”
“I just did.” The edges of Bradley’s perfect smile crinkled condescendingly, and he put a paper bag on the table. “Thought you might also like some breakfast.”
The brown bag rustled deliciously as I took a peek inside. Coffee, a chocolate croissant, some grapes, a small tub of low-fat yoghurt. “That is so sweet. Thank-you.” Despising him was so easy.
“Working nights is bad enough without lousy ex-boyfriends and all you’ve been through. Get a break at all?”
“I even managed to nod off in here for half an hour or so. At least I think I did. Which is pretty amazing, considering the smell. Still, a bit of a luxury, really, when I’m paid to be awake and doing things.”
Bradley flashed his perfect smile. “Anything you’d like me to check? Anything you were worried about?”
I paused, coffee in hand, and shot a look at my flatmate. “It’s not exactly your field,” I answered, putting the coffee down untasted.
“True, but I’m happy to go over any problem you might have. Besides, now I’m secretary of the Ethics Committee, I feel I need a better understanding of all that goes on in here.”
“The Ethics... what’s that got to do with me? Surely everything’s approved long before things get started in here.” I wondered how recent Bradley’s appointment was; he seemed to be establishing the foundations of a little empire in the university, touching everywhere. I could just see him sitting at a large circular table, clipboard in front of him, discussing with grave importance questions irrelevant to the applicant, but suddenly profound and impressive for the committee. “Besides,” I continued, “the mysteries of how this place is set and run defy me. I simply do the night shifts.” I almost threw in a reference to St Augustine pondering the mystery of the Trinity as he paced a beach, but decided it’d be unnecessary taunting.
“Still, it never hurts to know how all these things work,” Bradley answered. “Anything you want me to go over for you?”
“No, everything’s fine,” I answered. I managed to pull the lid off the yoghurt without splattering it all over myself, and tried a spoonful. Surely I was simply tired and imagining things, but I could feel Bradley spinning a web around me to rival Gillian’s – and I’d yet to escape her clutches, despite what I thought.
“Really?” Bradley spoke with amazed seriousness, incredulous anyone he considered more junior than he had any faith in what they were doing. (The first night I’d met Kayl, he’d filled the best part of an hour telling of how Bradley drove his poor underlings to despair. The boy proved a merciless mimic, and after finishing with Bradley spent another thirty minutes impersonating all and sundry I might meet while working, plus many I had yet to see. He didn’t impersonate Louise, though, nor did he even mention her.) With his clipboard tucked under his arm, Bradley would double-check his underlings’ work and earnestly point out the error of their ways, before proceeding to give each one homework to present to him next day. He always made a note of it on his clipboard. All for their benefit, of course. ‘Let’s just have a think about what you need to do here,’ mimicked Kayl, the voice exact. ‘Let’s not rush and miss anything.’
“Didn’t see the Grey Nurse,” I offered as an apology for my thoughts. I pulled the croissant from the bag. “Although the cupola light was on most of the night.”
With a sharp movement Bradley leant towards me, his face and posture transformed to match the seriousness of his voice. “Tell me you don’t believe it,” he said slowly, emphasising each word.
“Believe? Believe what? Honestly, Bradley, it’s just a story. A good story.”
“It’s more than a story,” he said. “Ghosts, stories, myths – anything which diverts us from Jesus is the devil’s work. Just like all those saints you Catholics worship, trying to intercede on your behalf. The only way to God is to have nothing between you and Him. You’d know that if you came to our bible study. Ghosts are evil.”
“What about the Holy Ghost?”
“That’s different,” Bradley answered. “Besides, the correct term is The Holy Spirit.” Just as quickly his persona resumed the all-knowing calm of a benign despot and, taking the lid off my coffee, poured in a precise one and a half sachets of sugar. “Should be cool enough to drink now,” he said.
Silenced by hearing thousands of years of theology reduced to slogan suitable for a t-shirt, I sat watching as the grains of sugar rested a moment on the milky foam before sinking luxuriously to the bottom. If only it were a glass, I’d put my head on the table to see the swirl of colours as the sugar fell. I half suspected Bradley would stir the coffee for me.
Taking a sip, I regarded my flatmate over the top of the foam cup. I wondered if Kayl had mentioned to Bradley his plans to use the Grey Nurse in his great Australian murder mystery. Personally, I don’t believe in ghosts, yet even as a child I’d known my aunt’s house to be haunted. We shared it with a peaceful being who never scared me whenever I stayed there. I’d never seen the ghost, of course – for I don’t believe in things which don’t exist – yet as the evening shadows began to stretch across the veranda, I’d sometimes hear footsteps in the hall, or the voice of an old woman outside my window calling for a cat. Once she rounded up the chooks. Dave had also heard her. Since the dogs had never been worried, I’d reasoned there was no reason for me to be. I don’t know what happened when my aunt had sold up and moved in with my parents, for the ghost didn’t come with her.
Besides, the romantic in me preferred the term Holy Ghost.
Bradley smiled as he pushed back his chair. “Well, as you don’t need me,” he said, “I’ll get started for the day. It’s amazing how much I can get done before everyone arrives. Especially my underlings.” Underlings, it seemed, who didn’t have a name. Bradley pointed eloquently to his breakfast offering as he stood up. “Make sure you eat that before you do anything else.”
“Thank you, that’s really kind of you,” I replied automatically. Years of a convent upbringing do have their benefits.
“And they really need to do something about that smell. Have they finished painting yet?”
“No, it seems to have ground to a halt with half a room to go.”
“I’ll see who I can talk to.” With that ambiguous comment he left.
Perhaps, from force of habit, Bradley was trying to impress me with his contacts, or maybe he really believed he could do something about an abandoned paint job. He paused on the far side of the lab to jot something on his clipboard.
As he stood making notes a woman I hadn’t seen before appeared and placed a box on the table beside me. She then handed me some papers. “Do you mind signing for these?” she said with her eyes resting on Bradley’s butt. “The day team’s not here yet.”
“Just let me start on my coffee.”
“Tell me,” she asked, leaning conspiratorially across the table and lowering her voice, “you share a house with Bradley, don’t you?”
I merely nodded as I took a long sip of caffeine. More proof there were no secrets in this place.
“Does he have a girlfriend?”
“What?” At this I did glance up.
“Bradley. Does he have a girlfriend?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” I said slowly. After all, I’d heard nothing more about that ‘someone’ Bradley had mentioned in his note just after I moved in. Perhaps it had mounted to nothing; perhaps it was simply a way to stop any awkward misunderstandings of a new housemate.
“Do you think he’d come to a cricket game I’m organising? He’s so sweet.”
“Yes, he is sweet.” I took a bite from my croissant. This was probably the closest I’d ever come to being Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Had I known, I’d have worn a little black dress to work. If only I had one. Perhaps if I joined Bradley’s bible study and let him review my work he’d stop being so damn sweet and trying to control my life – but then, I’d have no need for the little black dress.
“You’re not... I mean, I don’t...”
I broke off from my musings and offered the woman some of the croissant, thankful when my offer was refused. “It’s okay, we’re not... you know... I’m not interested.”
“Oh, good, I wasn’t sure... you can come as well if you like. It’s just a social game, followed by a barbecue and then, well, we’ll just see what happens.”
I signed the proffered form to hide my growing confusion. Since my social acuity was poor at best, I said nothing. The woman wasn’t listening to me, anyway. “Thanks for the offer, but, well I’m a bit of a social pariah at the moment, I’m afraid.” I didn’t offer any details.
“Oh, that’s a pity. But I think I will ask Bradley. Wish me luck,” the woman answered as she picked up the form and headed for the door. “I’ll see if I can catch up with him.”
I took another sip of my hot, sweet coffee and rested it on the desk. With a slow stretch, I felt just about every bone in my back click and grind. Muffling a yawn, I reached for the newspaper I’d purloined earlier. That the paper dated from last month was irrelevant. It was a weekend paper, and the section I’d pilfered was the perfect length to read while sipping a take-away latte. I had only a few results to log, and they could wait. At least until I’d downed my coffee.
I flipped through the pages as I finished the rest of my croissant. Half a page was dedicated to the desolate residents of an inner Sydney suburb, unable to buy their take-home curries since a certain shop had closed. Hope, however, was at hand, provided they were happy to travel across the bridge, for the shop had re-invented itself on the lower North Shore, with plans to open a second shop somewhere in the Eastern suburbs.
A few pages later my hand paused mid-air. Of course there was a picture of Jason. Just one of those snap shots taken at some social function, yet the caption revealed it was taken up here, at a do on campus. Jason, up here? But why? Was it about his upcoming broadcast – the paper didn’t say. For once, however, it was not Jason’s face which caught my attention. Nor was it the woman on his arm, this time a slim brunette and very photogenic. In the background, a glass of wine in one hand, half turned from the camera but with a size and silhouette undeniable, skulked Sir Dom.
“Stephanie, what on earth are you doing!”
I paused in my tinkering to see Melody standing in the doorway of the back lab, staring back at me in amazement. Machine parts lay strewn across the floor.
“Oh, I’ll be finished in just a jiffy,” I mumbled, my reply hampered by the Philips-head screwdriver between my teeth. I took it out before continuing. “A diode blew as I was doing a baseline check, but I found a spare in the parts box.” Turning back to the machine, I levered the small side panel back onto the machine, then started on the screws. There seemed to be a lot for such a tiny panel.
“The parts box?” said Melody. “We have a parts box?” She walked over and started rummaging through the container resting on the floor beside me. “Where on earth did you find this?”
“Up on a shelf in there,” I answered, nodding towards the far side of the room. “Took a bit of acrobatics to get it down, as I couldn’t find a step-ladder.”
Melody rested back on her heels and started laughing. “Oh my God, Stephanie. I don’t believe it! All my time here and I’ve never seen anyone fix one of these machines. Most the people here wouldn’t know a diode if they fell over one. When something blows it takes a mountain of paperwork and endless phone-calls just for someone to show their face.”
I looked at Melody and started laughing too. Something about this girl was so infectiously full of life. Like a child, whatever Melody felt danced across her face. “You’re early,” I said when I finally stopped giggling.
“Oh,” Melody answered, “I have a hot date tonight, so I’d thought I’d get in early to clear the pile of stuff I have to finish.”
“Lucky you,” I answered as I gathered up the remnants form the floor and emptied them into the box. “Up to helping me put this back?”
“Oh, leave it,” Melody answered. “About time the boys around here pulled their weight. Plus seeing it might make them feel a guilty.” She held out a hand and helped me up off the floor. “I mean, for heaven’s sake!” she continued. “A box of spare parts left on a shelf where no one knows where it is. Just goes to prove my those-who-make-the-decisions-have-never-functioned-in-the-real-world theory. Otherwise known as Melody’s Theorem. Works in parallel with the Peter Principle. The more shifts you do you’ll find yourself wondering who actually designed this place. Obviously not someone who deigns to work here.” With a gesture for me to follow, Melody led the way into another room. “I moved a kettle and some cups in here,” she said, “to get away from the smell. Tea or coffee?” she asked. “There’s some herbal teabags if you want one.”
“Ah, normal tea’s fine, thanks.”
“What I mean,” Melody continued as she played mother and began on the kettle and cups, “is that do you think someone really puts in the effort to make things as difficult and disorganized as possible, or is it just the result of chaotic atoms firing across the universe, inevitable since that first collision of the Big Bang?” She handed me a cup as she spoke. “Milk?”
“The second theory,” I answered, shaking my head at the offered milk. Cup in hand, I sat by the small table. “Take when I had to get my swipe card when I arrived here. The whole time I stood before the glass window of Security, the guy didn’t look at me once. Kept staring at his computer, all the while talking to someone in the back room but occasionally throwing some words at me, so I was never quite sure when the questions belonged to me or to someone else. That’s half an hour of my life I’m never getting back.”
“Well, I’m impressed,” Melody said as she sat down on the opposite side of the table. “Only half and hour. Security delights in making things difficult for newbies.” She jangled the tea bag in her cup for a few minutes before dropping it in the bin. “The great thing about Security,” she continued, “is that you need a swipe card to get there. Which you don’t have, unless you’ve been to Security.” After stirring in a few sachets of sugar, she took a sip of tea.
“I guess I was lucky,” I answered. Like a mirror image, I took a mouthful of my own tea, and tried to make myself a little more comfortable in the plastic chair. “It only took me some twenty minutes to find Security, and then when I got there, someone was just leaving and held the door open for me.”
“Twenty minutes,” said Melody. “Not bad. I still get lost trying to find the place.”
“Goes with your random atom theory,” I offered.
Melody smiled. “You’ll fit in well here. You finished now?”
“Just a couple of things to go in the log book, and I’m done.”
“Well, I’m off to get started. Here’s hoping the smell of paint doesn’t drive me to murder. Heh, don’t forget, that thing with Jason is in a few weeks. I’ll try and find the details today, and let you know. I can sneak out for a bit – everyone will – and we can go together.”
“It’s alright,” I began, but Melody and her smile and gone before I could think of an excuse. The girl simply had too much energy and life to listen to someone wallowing in despair.
I slipped quietly from the lab as others strolled or ran or sauntered in and began to fill the place. In the general flux of comings and goings no one saw me leave, which was exactly how I liked it to be; despite having worked here a few months, I’d managed to remain largely anonymous.
Slipping out the door, on a whim I decided I had just enough energy to find this Common Room – I’d been driven from my quest last night by that woman with her asinine prattle. Besides, going home, crawling into bed, meant thinking. It meant remembering I’d seen Gillian, and heard rumours of a re-incarnated Dom. Only utter exhaustion would let me sleep.
Not quite sure which direction to go, I trotted along the corridors and stairwells with a vague hope I had some idea where I was heading. My feet echoed along the empty hallways. A few people nodded as they went by, and some rooms were already filling with students for day; indeed, a few tutorials had already begun. I half-hoped a paper airplane would hit me as I passed, but at this hour, most were seriously still half asleep, with energy only to move paper over pen – or, for the more progressive, to tap on a laptop.
I didn’t miss it. For all that happened afterwards, I still don’t miss those days, or wax on to others about them being the best days of my life. Six years out of my life, and now I barely saw anyone from that time. They scarcely touched my dreams. I might still be tormented with nightmares about the HSC – a novel I hadn’t read, a maths textbook I’d somehow missed and only found a day or two before the exam, yet I rarely, if ever, dreamt of my time studying at university.
A real staircase opened before me, not one enclosed in a stained stairwell but rather one with balustrades and a grand sweep past open windows at each turn. Sunlight tumbled over me as I past them. I munched on my croissant as I walked, remembering a vague vow to pretend I was in Paris each morning as I wended my way home. Of course, that had been in another place, almost another time, standing outside my allotted flat before decamping to Bradley’s. Here, however, the light was not the musty sepia of an old movie, but bright and embracing, with a warm breeze carrying a morning cicada song. Instantly I was back to days of long-past summers, sitting in a classroom, staring through the windows into the cooling green of the trees, the cicadas drowning out the drone of the teacher, all of us waiting for the afternoon to pass, counting the days till the Christmas holidays might begin. Paris seemed a long way away.
The stairs led down to B Building Sixth Floor Section C. I had difficulty finding, or naming, most places here, but B Building Sixth floor Section C had quickly imprinted itself on my brain. I seemed to pass through this place at least once each shift, although I never needed to actually be here.
Every place in the building had its own peculiar odour, and B Building Sixth Floor Section C was a stale mixture of left-over formaldehyde mixed with cheap air freshener mingled with the faint smell of something decaying. Unfortunately, as it straddled a major thoroughfare of the labyrinthine buildings, I’d quickly decided that in some mysterious para-physical plane B Building Sixth Floor Section C controlled the time-space vortex. Five hundred years ago it would’ve been a thriving town seething with robbers and touts, busily skimming money off pilgrims, merchants and any other who passed that way. Or perhaps a bustling port like Venice, jealously guarding the portal between the old world and the new, destroying all rivals by insinuation and threat. No matter which way I set out, B Building Sixth Floor Section C materialized directly in my path.
As I stood down from the turn of the stair, the place reminded me of an entrance to some New York high rise of bustling enterprise, where women strutted past in pencil skirts and men in their suits and hats never paused as they passed through on their way to make millions (all seen, of course, in black and white). Any moment Audrey Hepburn would walk by on her way to visit Humphrey Bogart on the top floor. Just below me, a large reception desk took centre stage, but a myriad of offshoots circled around their own desks. People milled everywhere, rarely standing still, but none dressed in the fashion of Sabrina, and no yellow taxi waited outside. The noise echoed along the corridor and bounced off the windows, back into the mayhem.
Taking a deep breath I hurried down the stairs, past the main desk and through to another corridor. Almost at random I descended another set of stairs and followed a few turns of the corridor. Almost without trying I’d achieved my quest – though, now I thought about it, the room sat but a few floors below the labs, only on the diagonally opposite side of the building. In the last place I’d worked, the Common Room was reached by a circular iron staircase sporadically attached to the outside of the building, a temporary measure which had lasted a few years. On a wet, or simply dark, night those steps were nigh on lethal.
I swiped open the door card to find a spacious – and clean – room complete with arm chairs and lounges, a large TV set up in one corner, a kitchenette to one side, more chairs and lounges set up to make little rooms in the big one. There was also the mandatory snooker table, and a collection of mismatched books. In one corner stood a bucket, full of water from an occasionally dripping ceiling.
The place was empty, and it actually smelt, if not fresh, at least clean. A corridor left the main room, lined by separate sleeping rooms. It opened onto another, smaller common room. Most of the space was taken by lockers, but an enwalled courtyard opened to one side, and I could make out a few chairs, and some garden beds. I even caught the scent of gardenias.
From beyond this second room came some distant noises. I looked into another hallway, which its own row of rooms opening off each side. A trolley laden with towels rested halfway along, assumedly marking the site of the showers Melody had promised, for I could hear the sound of running water mingled with singing. More promising, however, was a vending machine; on closer inspection it held all of those one off essentials necessary for the bathroom; it even had toothbrushes for sale. But no underwear – maybe one day I’d be able to report to Dave I’d found such a machine.
On returning to the main room I discovered it wasn’t as deserted as I’d thought. A recumbent form occupied one of the couches, softly snoring. The squelch of shoes sounded from some hidden spot, and a toilet flushed next-door, followed by water gurgling through the walls. Through the wall I heard a machine clunk heavily to life, labour for a few moments, then just as heavily switch itself off. My curiosity sated, I left quietly and made my way back into the maze of buildings I now called work. My eyes ached. I was tired enough now not to think, hopefully not to dream. All I wanted now was a shower and bed. Plus to get out of these jeans with the annoying tape I was still using as a belt.
From habit, I left work each morning by a different way to which I’d arrived the night before, (for I had this dread of passing the years walking the same route over and over, as my father had done, to and from work, every day, until one day he didn’t come home. He was found by a neighbour not far from the bus stop, cold and blue, failing to deviate from his set route even as his blood congealed. Died, left us, crossed over, passed on, whatever; I’d had heard every expression so many times since he’d died, then Mum, then Dave.)
A few twists and turns and I’d ventured into unfamiliar territory. The corridor ended in a wooden door, firmly shut although the hour of nine had passed. I tried the handle, but it remained obstinate. Reluctantly, I fumbled my ID card from my bag.
A swipe of this magic card, followed by a click, and the door graciously opened.
With just the push of the doorway, I’d unwittingly stumbled into the gentle arms of the old hospital. When, after the grand coup, the effeminate powers-that-be had tried tearing down these gracious buildings to make way for towering stories, they’d found themselves constricted by heritage orders. Their legally correct answer, as Kayl explained it: to extend the new buildings right to the walls of the original hospital, almost swallowing the place in the process.
But not quite. Soft sunlight fell onto polished wooden floors laden with expensive carpets; elaborate cornices traipsed around a high ceiling before tripping around carved doorways. The smell of B Building Sixth floor Section C had vanished, replaced by a softness that comes from old wood instead of sterile air-fresheners. Here I could pretend I was in Paris.
After taking a few steps, I paused on a small landing. The grandeur of older days swirled around me. A flight of stairs graciously beckoned towards the gleaming marble floor of the original entrance. High above me floated the cupola, its stained glass showering a rainbow of colours across the polished floor and handrails. Despite its beauty, footsteps of ice ran down my spine. This was where the Grey Nurse had met her end.
“Are you lost?”
Jumping at the sound of the cold voice, I lost my footing on the top step. Grabbing the polished rail to steady myself, I turned to a woman with sour grey hair and a clipped face. She glared at me like a spider underfoot. She opened her mouth but paused, as if struggling to choose between stamping on the intruder or calling the exterminators.
With only a nod I turned and walked down the staircase, desperately trying to channel Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, and her effortless glide down a marble staircase past Winged Victory. If only I wore a flowing red evening gown; in my broken jeans and sneakers, I’d never felt less elegant.
Leaving by the main door into the blinding light of day, I stared vacantly around me. I had no idea where I was, and the woman wasn’t the type to offer directions.
I turned back for another look at the old hospital. With the morning stretching languid arms around the building, the sandstone building shimmered a soft rose. The sanguine colours of Tuscany. Monteriggioni perhaps – I’d seen a photo of such a place, once. A willow casually tickled a stone-wall, hinting at a pebble drive winding past groves of olives, a few forgotten orchards, perhaps an overgrown kitchen garden before arriving at a grand but crumbling villa. A gracious lady remembering clement times. The smell of coffee wafted on the breeze, mingling with laughter rising from those lunches which stretch through languid afternoons until the soft fall of dusk. Then an unseen kookaburra broke the spell with a warm-up chuckle, before quickly soaring into a full throttled laugh.
Such a beautiful building. Even to one such as me, who passed each day with stones grinding everything within to dust.
I stood squinting in the harsh sunshine. Unsure as to how to get back to my car, I chose a path at random. I’d no idea which way lead back the paddock full of cows, who’d watched over my car on my day here. Despite my tiredness, I took my time. The world here was still quiet, and I enjoyed wandering and seeing no one. I passed some lush lawns and a few garden beds filled with colour, though elsewhere flowers were showing the effects of a long summer.
From a copse of gums came the warble of magpies. Some noisy babies started harassing their parents for food, their incessant demands drowning out the distant sounds of traffic. I thought about how mother birds coped with the morning rush. Could a worm ever be as good as a strong coffee?
As I walked in the sunshine, I tried imagining how it must feel to let loose with the most beautiful of warbles, all the while surrounded by a curtain of swaying green. Or landing on a branch that danced beneath my weight, before darting off in a flutter of wings as another bird swept past. I’d always wanted to be part of a cockatoo circus, squawking in endless tumbles around branches and overhead wires and television antennae, falling out of one tree only to somersault onto another, knocking other cockatoos from their precarious perch as the whole pack soared across backyards dotted with pools and terracotta roofs, always yammering, never still, sulphur crests flaring with each tumble.
I wriggled my shoulders as I walked, trying to get my bag comfortable. Even its lightness weighed on me, sending an ache across the knots in my back. A massage would be nice. Another thing to pop on my to-do list.
A lazy breeze ruffled my hair, leaving a wake of hot air. Although still early, everything lay smothered under the humidity of late summer.
Before long the bones of the new buildings would lie groaning in the heat. Come afternoon, everyone would be sweltering. In blocks A and C the air conditioning worked only sporadically, so each floor grew hotter than the one below. Only those offices sunk in the bowels – such as The Printing Bloc, or Environmental and Sanitary Planning – remained refreshingly cool. Everywhere else, tensions festered.
I cast a final look at the old hospital. As tempers frayed it would settle back, enjoying itself. It had seen worse. Much worse. Worse would come. The hospital would survive.
The quaint cupola and old hospital disappeared with a bend of the path, and my surroundings rapidly faded into squat and boring seventies architecture. Rounding the corner of another nameless building – I simply had no idea what on earth all these buildings and rooms could be used for – I pondered the featureless brick walls. As my eyes trailed along the roofline I turned and walked backwards, all the while staring at something which looked like a gargoyle. Silhouetted against the sunlight, it took a few moments to work out it was simply a tile resting loosely on the corner. A pity. Still, maybe Quasimodo’s hunched back would suddenly loom against the skyline – or Ben Hur as he watched the new Governor of Judea ride by, both unaware the tile would slip and shatter everyone’s life.
Too late I turned back to see where I was walking and naturally bumped into someone in this place where no one else was. “Oh, I’m sorry,” I stuttered, my blush leaving me even more flustered.
“Stephanie, I presume.” Of course it was the whistling cleaner, the one who spoke strange words and wrote with a fountain pen. And who was a damned good cook. Now he wandered the grounds of the campus with his face immersed in a book. “Weren’t you meant to finish hours ago?” he asked.
“Ah, yes, the same for you, surely?” I stumbled, embarrassed at how he knew my name but I didn’t know his and the opportunity to ask had now fled. Another thing Jason once found cute then regularly criticized.
“Oh, I’ve just been waiting for the library to open,” he said.
“Oh, I need to do some work for my thesis.”
“Your thesis?” I repeated, feeling like the other half in an especially bad vaudeville routine. “And would that be a thesis on, ah, cleaning?” The words sounded rude even as I uttered them.
To my relief, he simply threw back his head and laughed. “Oh, I like that. Wouldn’t that set the cat amongst the proverbial pigeons. Or maybe a tumbling mop amongst the buckets might be a more appropriate metaphor. Henryk, by the way,” he said, offering a hand. His fingers were long, with an ink stain on both his index and middle finger. My hand disappeared in his. “No, I just do night work to pay the bills,” he continued. “I’m actually a would-be philosopher, trying to complete my PhD.”
“Now you’re just playing with my mind,” I said, relieved he hadn’t taken offence. I was too tired to really contemplate the nuances of a cleaner who studied philosophy. Perhaps this was merely Henryk’s part of the vaudeville routine. “I’ve known a lot of people who’ve started philosophy,” I said, “but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s finished a degree in it.” A few of my brother’s friends, who struggled on a daily basis to keep themselves clean, had begun Philosophy 101 and rapidly cultivated the air of knowing far more than they could actually deign to talk about while lounging on the nearest sofa.
“Oh, we’re not that rare a breed,” Henryk said, running a hand through his cropped hair. In the sunlight I noticed how, like his beard, it held the occasional glint of red. “You just met the wrong ones. Let me guess. First year students whose knowledge of Oscar Wilde’s wardrobe exceeded their grasp of the metaphysical. Possibly very good at elliptical, but erroneous references?” He raised an eyebrow at me, and I couldn’t help but grin back.
“How did you know?” I said.
“I used to be a tutor,” he answered. “You know the story. Can’t get a decent job without my thesis, can’t do my thesis doing any other uni job because I don’t have the time, can’t get a job doing what I’m interested in without my thesis... Did have a job working on a journal for a while, but my lowly position on the pecking order meant it fell to me to write the rejection letters to those who submitted articles and the like. Personally, I’d prefer to drown puppies. Cute white ones, with fluffy ears.”
“Could be a philosophy lecture in that,” I said, not sure what I was mumbling about. Henryk looked at me as if no blemishes hovered about my shoulders; it had been so long since anyone had looked at me in this way that it left me stumbling over my words.
“Mm, could be,” the philosopher agreed, nodding a little. He still held his book in his hand, a finger marking the page. His hand hid the title. “Well, so now I work nights and write during the day when the library’s open for business. Works quite well. So, Stephanie,” he added, nodding at the skyline, “why were you staring at the roof? What can’t I see?”
“The... oh, I see, the roof of this building. That’s why I didn’t see you. I was, er, just thinking how boring it was. To look at. Compared to the old hospital.” I couldn’t bring myself to mention the gargoyle, or the hunchback waiting to make an appearance as soon as we were out of eyesight.
“Hmm,” Henryk said as he looked up at the roof in his turn, “not the most inspiring. That’s what happens when a university marries big business. These ones were put up a decade or so ago. Those two buildings there,” he said, pointing to one side, “they used to be student accommodation. Now a drug company has moved in. Obviously, profit margins are preferable to beautifying the work environment. Few people live on campus anymore,” he added.
“Do you?” I asked, relieved to find something I could say. “It’d make it easy for your studies.”
“No,” Henryk replied, “I live with my grandfather. Just out of town, on a small farm. One of my uncles rebuilt the old dairy on the place, so now his son – my cousin Greg – he now lives there with his wife and three kids. My sister and her husband live on a few acres which used to be part of the farm. They’re trying to owner-build at the moment, but with a young baby and another on the way, I help them out when I can, as not much is happening otherwise. I share the main house with Grandpa, and we pretend to keep an eye on each other. The rest of the family keep talking of building a granny flat – well, a grandpa flat – for him, or sharing him around the grandkids, which are quite a lot, as he had seven kids himself. But I can’t imagine him ever moving out of the old home. Not while he has his memories. There’s even a peach tree growing from a seed he brought back from the Second World War.”
“Goodness,” I said, thinking of my stark world. “Sounds like a virtual town down there.”
“Oh, it has its moments.” Henryk turned and looked behind us. “The old hospital is much more beautiful,” he said. “Something about these new buildings is now so dated, I don’t know how to put it, but something in their air – they just seem sinister as they squat there. Stupidly sinister. They don’t quite seem like criminal masterminds. You know,” and Henryk slipped his swipe card into the book in his hand and finally closed it, “there’s this hospital in Rome which can trace its foundations back to Aesculapius.”
“You’re joking,” I said, not quite sure of the connection. This was how Dave used to talk. I hadn’t heard such patter in a long time
“No, it’s true. On the Isola Tiberina. I believe that’s how it’s pronounced. Used to be the port, apparently, and when this boat from Greece docked, two snakes from Aesculapius’ temple which happened to be on board – don’t ask me why they were there, probably some sort of good-luck charm – well, they conveniently slid off and made the island their home. A sign, obviously. And the place has been a hospital ever since. Run by the – what’s their name again? – I can’t remember the Italian at this hour, but in English they’re called the Do-Good, Brothers. What a great name, don’t you think? I often wonder what this place would be like to work in if it was people by black-robed monks. Maybe these buildings wouldn’t look so evil.”
“What on earth do the other cleaners make of you?” I said. “Oh, I’m sorry, that sounds rude but I...”
Yet Henryk didn’t seem to mind my rudeness. Instead he just grinned. “No offense taken. It’s a good point. Besides, being on nights,” he said, “I don’t really see the others that much. Everyone has their assigned areas, so we rarely cross paths. You off home now?”
“Yes. Finally,” I answered. The tiredness which had fled for a few brief moments now broke over my shoulders once more.
“Where’s your car?” Henryk asked.
“In the multi-story car park.”
“There’s more than one?”
“Then I think I need to walk you there,” Henryk said as he fell into step beside me. “One of my many cousins works in Security. If you like, I’ll get someone to meet you of an evening. It’s a rough area, day or night.”
“Ah, thanks,” I said, finally too tired to blush. “I liked your curry puffs, by the way,” I added, glad to have remembered. “And the chicken. Your grandpa must eat well. So, may I ask what your thesis is on?”
“Do you promise not to laugh?” he asked, looking down at me. I’d never thought of myself as short, but I hovered just above his shoulder. “You look too tired to do more than giggle, anyway,” Henryk continued. “You see, I’ve always been fascinated by the role of myths in our lives, and how they link to our evolving theories of morality. How myths persist, and why, and how they change with time, how their different interpretations reflects that society’s moral code at the time.”
“Oh,” was the best I could offer. Even Dave had never thought of such things.
“Hence my knowledge of Roman hospitals,” Henryk said, smiling. “I do actually have a bit of a life.”
I felt incredibly stupid. How could anyone think of such things after having been awake or night? “But, if the modern world still lives these myths, wouldn’t that mean that magical, I mean, unexpected, things would happen?” I asked.
“Not at all. We’re just all too busy being serious to notice we’re living in the middle of a story. That’s all a myth is, really, a story that survives. And grows grander – and then more magical – with the telling. Everyone has their story, if you can find it. Even the most boring people, or place, can be remarkably complex. Take working here, for example,” he said. “As an entity in itself. Just think: doesn’t it remind you of the labyrinth at Knossos? Not that I’ve been there, of course,” Henryk continued as I simply shook my head in reply, not knowing what to say. Knossos, labyrinth, Minotaur; that was about all I could remember. Plus that episode of Dr Who, where Tom Baker had a ball of wool amongst the jelly beans in his pocket, a pocket which was bigger on the inside.
“Wouldn’t mind wrangling a grant to get there,” Henryk continued as my brain whirled through the heavens, away from the noise and the traffic and the smells of the day. “Or at least what’s left. Just imagine wandering those endless passageways which lead nowhere, all the while waiting for the hot breath of a hungry beast on your shoulder. New people start here all the time – just like the offering of all those tumbling youths every seven years. Always sent by people much higher up the food chain. Personally, I think being devoured would be a blessing after aimlessly wandering those soulless corridors.”
I giggled, but to my chagrin it came out more as a snort. “To be honest,” I said, “those corridors, especially of a night, well, they make me think of hell. A modern hell.”
“Hell,” said Henryk, nodding. “A modern Hades. I like that. And like a re-incarnated Sisyphus we wander the corridors, never quite reaching the end, always having to start at the beginning the next day – or, in our case, night. The same night, over and over. I’d like to think about that one.” He fell silent, but after only one or two steps was talking again. “Here we are, the car park. This the right one?”
I simply nodded, and Henryk pulled open the door to the stairwell.
“Now, to get to Hades,” he said, “one must cross the river Styx. So, where must that be? Of course – that god-forsaken tunnel. And then there’s those who actually survive wandering the corridors,” he continued enthusiastically, now almost skipping beside me up the stairs. “Working their way up the ladder, when many – usually the interesting ones – give up in despair. Faustus springs to mind, selling his soul for knowledge, or power, or whatever; now, how many people working here does that make you think of? Just about everyone who stays. All thinking they’ve outwitted the Devil, never realizing Diablo plays to his own set of rules, and always wins. Always. Mestophales comes to claim the Devil’s due, the fat lady sings, then it’s time for a new victim. An endless number of offerings working their way up the academic hierarchy ever ready to sell their souls. Even Achilles chose glory and a name to live forever over a long and happy life.” Henryk paused and turned to me. “You’d be amazed at the prevalence of dishonour amongst people intimate with Kierkegaard and Shakespeare.”
“No, trust me, I’m not surprised at all.” Catching the troubled glance shot my way, I forced a smile. “The things people do just to get a paper published. You’ve never been tempted?”
“Don’t think I haven’t,” Henryk laughed. “Fortunately, the stuff I’ve written so far, not even the devil wants. Not even my abysmal poetry, submitted to magazines which don’t even pay. From what I’ve seen, the devil tends to hunt those seeking tenure. Now, you’ve come to a stop. Is this the right level?”
I stared around the car park, looking for my car. Was this the right level? These places are always so different by daylight. Where exactly had I parked? I clicked my key ring, and with relief heard an answering beep. “You know,” I said, “I think that’s the first time since leaving school that I’ve heard anyone mention Faustus. Except my brother, of course.”
“Is that right?” Henryk answered, prancing to a stop beside my battered car. “I’d like to meet him. I take it this is your car?’
Suddenly I was fumbling with my keys; it must be the tiredness which made my eyes sting. Washed away by currents I hadn’t seen, I suddenly found myself swimming far beyond my depth, with neither map nor movie to guide me. Here be dragons, ran the words above me.
“No,” I said, concentrating on trying to get my keys to work. “I mean, yes, it’s my car but no, you can’t meet my brother. He’s, ah, he’s not here.”
“Oh, I see,” was all Henryk said as he gallantly took the keys from my hand. Next thing my bag was lifted from my shoulder, and the car door opened. “Here at the frontier, there are falling leaves,” he said softly as I climbed in. My legs felt as heavy and as stiff as tree trunks, stripped of fallen leaves. “Although my neighbours are all barbarians,” Henryk continued, “And you, you are a thousand miles away, There are always two cups on my table.” He smiled apologetically, then handed me both my keys and my bag. “Now off to bed with you. No offense, but you look terrible.”
Before I could reply, Henryk shut the car door and turned back down the street, opening his book as he went. As if I were already forgotten.
Or had never been.
I shook my head. I’d already reached the third roundabout, and couldn’t remember driving here. I could remember leaving the car park, just, but not much else. I retraced the route in my mind, trying to decide which way to go now. Left or right at the end of the street? My body felt wrung dry.
Just to stay awake I started reciting Monty Python ad hoc, but the words flowed into a lilting melody. Cars rushed by on the way to work – one of the few benefits of nights was the drive home on the morning after, the inordinate pleasure I took in watching others head off to work, immaculately dressed and with faces resigned, so many putting the finishing touched to their lipstick or mascara. (A thing I rarely did myself; since Jason, I saw no need for the armour of makeup.) Others staring blankly out the window, waiting for lights to change as I soared past in the opposite direction. I’d once seen a guy shaving. I hoped to one day catch a woman doing the same thing, soaped leg out the window, razor blade in one hand, holding the steering wheel with the other.
I’d toyed with the idea of stopping off at Jim’s for breakfast, but all I wanted now was to get home. To go to sleep. Maybe some rain would fall again, and float me into slumber. Where hopefully Jason wouldn’t wander into my dreams.
A turn of a roundabout, and I hit the brakes to miss a car. I hadn’t seen it – or it hadn’t seen me. I was too tired to even remember.
And as I slammed on the brakes a memory slammed into my brain. Of seeing Henryk sitting on a grave, drinking champagne and laughing, so alive while I was so dead.