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The Laptop

by Mark Keane

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3

part 1

Samuel Dunne made his discovery when he was organising the documents and files on the new laptop. He had followed his wife’s instructions: how to move files, create folders and sub-folders, name files and back everything up.

One of the yellow folders on the screen did not have a title. The nameless folder stood out from the others. He clicked on it and opened a page crowded with icons: a display of PDF, image files and others he did not recognise. It was unlikely they belonged to his wife. She would surely have labelled the folder. Dunne was certain the old computer would not have let this happen.

* * *

Dunne had been unwilling to give up on the old computer. “It’s a question of loyalty,” he told his wife. The computer had provided excellent service. It had complied with his commands for many years and now that it was aging and no longer as electronically spry, he was not going to abandon it willy-nilly.

“But it’s cludgy,” his wife said. “It doesn’t work properly anymore.”

“That is not an adequate reason,” he countered. “We should take a stand against the prevailing callousness of modern life.”

She said he was too cheap to buy a new computer. This was unfair though probably true. She said he was stuck in his ways, which was true. He rejected the modern disposable world, the mania for new technology that devalued self-reliance and integrity.

“You must face up to change.” She would not relent. The laptop had begun to show signs of extreme distress. Dunne had to accept the inevitability of the computer’s terminal disorder.

The screen flickered. Characters appeared at random. There was a greenish tinge around the computer’s gills. The end came with a continuous display of gibberish rolling across the screen: letters, Roman and Greek, mathematical symbols, stars and dashes. Then a blank screen. The devoted servant had died.

Dunne’s wife presented him with an advertisement listing the attributes of a replacement: display, memory, CPU, storage. All incomprehensible to him, but he knew the purchase was a foregone conclusion.

He soon found himself loitering in the electronics section of a soulless department store, feigning interest in the display of faux Bakelite telephones. His wife handed him a ridiculously light box containing the new laptop to carry home.

Dunne took no part in setting up the new laptop, not that he would have been any help. He retreated to his rocking chair and left his wife to it. Installation of software, configuring this with that. Jargon and more jargon, it was simply beyond him. He disliked the bluish glaze of the new device, its thinness, its smugness.

“Look,” his wife said, “there are no gaps between the keys to trap hair and dust.”

“That’s progress,” he responded dully.

“We can load all our photographs,” she enthused, “everything will run much quicker.” In a spirit of appeasement, she asked what he would like to have as background, as computer wallpaper. She showed him images of city skylines, close-ups of desert plants, dew-edged leaves and sunsets. He suggested they use an image of the defunct computer as wallpaper.

Dunne knew he must put aside his prejudice and use the replacement laptop to work on his projects. He had grasped the freedom his enforced early retirement granted him to indulge his interest in history. This had taken him from the general to the personal, from Napoleonic wars to his ancestry.

He was now on the trail of a great-uncle, another Samuel Dunne, who had lived in New York at the turn of the twentieth century. An associate of Carnegie, this Dunne had moved among the elite and powerful. He was by far the most accomplished member of an admittedly humdrum family tree, and the most contentious.

Dunne created a sub-folder entitled Samuel Dunne, which he stored in the Family Tree folder. He set about populating this with documents and images he had sourced from distant relatives.

* * *

Dunne had to admit the new laptop discharged its duties with greater speed than before. Yet there was something about the nameless folder that bothered him. He poised the cursor over the first entry, a PDF, and read the box that emerged. Adobe Acrobat Document. Date Created: 12/09/1961 08:30. What did this mean? It was his birthday, the date of his birth. And the time. How could a file on a computer only two months in his possession date from 1961 with the time of his birth?

He clicked on the small grey square with its red squiggle to open the contents. He recognised the page immediately. It was his birth certificate, with handwritten entries. Name, surname and dwelling place of father, profession, official signatures all in copperplate writing, clearly legible and obviously authentic.

Dunne’s eyes were drawn to the entry in the box for profession. Plumber and not teacher, which he had told his wife and her family. The petty falsehood had been unnecessary. His wife disliked snobbery of any form, and her family was not interested. Dunne experienced a twinge of regret and shame.

The document was in pristine condition, virgin white. Not the yellowed and creased parchment he kept rolled in a trunk in the attic. This certificate was intact. It was not missing a section of the right lower corner that he had torn off when impatiently removing some document stapled to it for a now unremembered purpose.

This was very irregular. Why would his wife have loaded the certificate onto the laptop? He ran the cursor over the second entry. A picture, size and dimensions that he ignored as he concentrated on the date and time; 16/09/1961 12:52. He clicked the mouse and a grainy black and white photograph appeared on the screen.

It took a matter of seconds for him to realise the context. He had never seen it before but he recognised his mother: her pillbox hat, horn-rimmed glasses, dark skirt, sensible shoes, heavy overcoat and stole. She held something in her arms that she lifted towards the camera. Something wrapped in a blanket or towelling. This feature was too small and the photograph out of focus for him to discern the details.

The unknown photographer had been positioned some distance from his mother, and the picture was composed to take in the sign above the door where she stood. He read the name of the hospital. That must be him in the bundle in his mother’s arms. It was Dunne on the day his mother left hospital after his birth.

Even then she looked old, not the way the mother of a new-born baby should look. A family friend perhaps or a spinster aunt helping out and holding the baby for the mother. This had caused him embarrassment later with his school friends, the mother who could pass for his grandmother. He avoided bringing friends home, looked away and hid in the pack if ever she passed them on the street.

That evening Dunne climbed into the attic. He found the original birth certificate that was even more tattered than he remembered with multiple creases and blotches in addition to the torn corner. He did not know what this meant but then became absorbed in the box of toys from his childhood and the Meccano set that had so engaged him as a boy. He lifted the lid and fiddled with the pieces, but they made no sense to him now.

* * *

Dunne was alone in the house. His wife was at the gym. Dunne was reading the one surviving letter written by his great-uncle. In terse text, he rebuffed a request for assistance from his brother, Dunne’s grandfather. All begging letters, he had written, would be returned unopened.

The letter bore a New York address, on Lexington Avenue. Dunne’s wife had shown him how to use the internet to arrive at a street view. Zooming in and out, shifting to the right, the right again and again, a complete circle. The panorama was foreign to him, the stone and glass monoliths, the horizontal metal platforms and fire escape ladders, advertisements for wireless technology, pizza parlours, delicatessens and queues of yellow taxis. It would have meant little to his ancestor who came from a world of street trolleys and horsedrawn carts.

He opened the Samuel Dunne folder and viewed the image of his great-uncle. A studio photograph of a portly man in a frock coat with fob, austere bearing, high forehead and whiskers. With his stern and penetrating gaze, he appeared to be sizing up his descendant. Dunne wondered what this successful man who lived in an era of change would have made of the twenty-first century, of laptops and the Internet.

Dunne added some notes to a document that he saved. The white bar travelled smoothly along the horizontal on the screen of the brash new laptop so unlike the reassuring green dashed line of the old computer.

He searched for the nameless folder. There it was, brazenly perched on the screen. He decided to dip in, clicked and the icons emerged.

Had the number increased? He was unsure. Possibly. He opened the third entry, another image; 13/12/1961 14:03. It was a photograph of the house where he grew up. Number 32 as his mother would pointedly inform relatives, bin men, milk men, meter readers and members of the clergy. Three stories plus a basement, red-bricked with cracked red and blue Harlequin tiles leading to a stout maroon wooden door atop three entry steps.

There was a figure in the photograph about to turn into the gate. Her head was averted but he recognised Mrs. Brennan, the widow who rented rooms on the top floor. He could picture her puffy pallid face, long individual hairs sprouting from facial moles. The rimless glasses and tea-cosy hat plopped upon her head. Her whispering voice as she enquired how he was doing at school.

Dunne closed the picture and quickly switched to the next. This was of the back garden, the long green area that stretched to a stone wall bearing a door for entry to the adjoining lane. The clothesline that ran the length of the garden was loaded as he always remembered with billowing sheets. The photograph must have been taken on a windy day; 18/12/1961 at 09:36.

He looked more closely at the background and could make out Tom, the black-and-white cat and his childhood companion. The cat appeared to be toddling along in the direction of an outhouse. He was, of course, heading for the coal shed. Dunne recalled the disastrous day when he and Tom had been prospecting for gold among the piles of coal. On re-entering the yard, Tom had launched himself on the sheets hanging from the line and left a trail of coal-black paw prints. And Dunne recalled, too, the punishment that was meted out to cat and boy by way of reprisal.

Dunne stood up from the screen and went to the kitchen to make himself a cup of coffee. He was in a near-trance, a reverie where he replayed in his mind scenes from his past. The games he played with Tom. The hours spent exploring the warren of corridors in the old house, mysterious cupboards, nooks under the winding stairs and the dark basement.

He still had some time before his wife’s return. He took his coffee and sat at the laptop. The next image, 06/03/1962 13:12, was of his two brothers in the lane behind the house. Robert, aged nine, was seated in a homemade cart. This had been built from a crate that once held oranges and which had been crudely modified with the attachment of pram wheels. A rudimentary steering device involving ropes was added, but it never worked.

Standing above the cart was Stephen, four years older than Robert, who was giving the thumbs up sign to the camera. Easygoing Stephen had always had a friendly word for his kid brother. He provided a protective shield against the intimidating Robert and their corrosive, virulent father.

There was a series of photographs from that summer. Images of his brothers repairing the cart after a crash. Of them exploring the abandoned and overgrown manse at the end of the lane. Of Tom torturing a mouse. Of Tom asleep stretched out on a sunlit patch of grass. Of Dunne’s mother with a neighbour, whose face he remembered though not her name. They sat on the overstuffed couch in the front living room laughing at a shared joke.

He recollected none of these events, for he had been too young at the time, but knew they were genuine. Each image captured a moment in 1961 and 1962. The rattle of the key in the front door told him his wife had returned. Instinctively he closed the file and folder. He was unsettled by his discovery, but it did not occur to him to ask her about the uploaded files. Later, when he had time to mull the matter over, he decided not to mention it — at least for the time being.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Keane

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