by Mark Keane
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Dunne had been transported back to his childhood. He accepted the nameless album of reminiscences on the new laptop and did not question its source. He could find out later. It was nonetheless eerie to have the door to his early years opened in this manner.
He scanned the files and chose a PDF dated 09/06/1968 15:21. It was a page bearing the logo of the primary school he had attended with the name of the headmaster, that bald tyrant, on the bottom of the page.
It was a school report. Succinct to the point of abruptness, a list of subjects with a grade and cursory assessment. Mathematics, B, very good. English, C, good. Geography, C, good. History, D, average. A mediocre set of marks that did not match his recollection of academic achievement at school.
There was no denying the actuality on the screen, however unpalatable. He read the final comment, the headmaster’s summation: a good boy but difficult to get to know, progress is satisfactory.
Dunne did not recognise the next icon, which looked like a film reel. He clicked on it. The run time on the player indicated a short film, only 17 seconds. The screen was white, almost blinding, then a cloudiness and a monochrome scene with rounded shapes that came into focus. Heads. Dunne was looking at the back of heads and then pages lined in squares. A sloping surface, a ridge, a round hole containing a ceramic pot that held dark liquid. A hand with a pen, a nibbed pen. The sleeve of a jumper. A satchel lying on the ground against a chair leg. The view altered, panned up. A figure standing. A dark suit, V-neck jumper and narrow tie. Scrawny turkey neck, a narrow head, widow’s peak, thin mouth opening and closing.
Dunne turned up the sound. A voice: “sneaky, slimy snakes.” It was Haddington, his teacher at school. Dunne was watching a scene from his schooldays. Haddington reached to one side and raised a long wooden ruler. “You slippery, slimy snakes. I’ve had enough of you villainous snakes, you nest of vipers, you duplicitous reptiles.”
The picture faded and began to rock back and forth. Haddington reappeared, the stick held in both hands as he tested its stiffness. “Particularly you, Dunne, you sneaky adder.” Haddington came closer, his suited torso dominating the screen. He bent down. His face filled the screen, the long nose and inexpressive eyes, the widow’s peak. The screen went blank.
Dunne moved backwards, his chair scraping the floor, an instinctive recoiling from what he had seen. Haddington and his yardstick. Dunne recalled the beating he had received in front of the class. He could not remember the context, only the certainty he was innocent. It had been a mistake, but Haddington would not listen. Dunne was sure he had never thought about this incident since it occurred. And yet there must have been a faint lingering in the furthermost recesses of his mind.
Dunne was shocked by its immediacy, by its intrusion now. He returned to the folder and opened the next film, again 17 seconds duration. The startling white screen then opaqueness. An unsteady image that Dunne was slow to make out, what looked like an old-fashioned range. The lighting in the film was poor. There was something to one side of the range. A pair of legs came into view, an arm by the side. He realised with a sharp pain in his gut what this represented.
The range in the kitchen of his home, the home that had featured in images from the folder. This time he knew what was coming. The volume was still on; a reedy voice escaped the laptop that froze the blood in his veins. “All I ask for is some respect, boy, a little bit of respect.”
The legs moved from the range and approached the camera. The leather strap visibly swaying in the fist that clenched it. “You will learn to show respect.” The legs rushed towards the screen and Dunne. A hint of raised strap then indistinct grey on black. The picture was unsteady. The film ended.
The silence in the room was unbearably magnified. Dunne had been holding his breath. He was shaken, shocked by what he had just witnessed, what he had relived. He had done his best to suppress these memories. They had remained submerged until the arrival of the laptop.
Dunne could not sleep that night. He crept from the bed, his movement causing his wife to readjust her position before resuming her quiet snoring. He sat on the rocking chair wrapped in a quilt. He toyed with the idea of checking more of the mysterious files but was restrained by his unease. The photographs were menacing, the films even more disturbing. Why had he not appeared in the films?
* * *
Dunne kept his distance from the laptop. He shuddered whenever he caught a glimpse of its malevolent metallic blue sheen. He took long walks by the seafront and kept thoughts of the computer at bay. He concentrated on his family tree project. He compiled a list of the businesses his great-uncle had operated.
The other Dunne had made his fortune in textiles and was responsible for innovations in cheap mass-production. He invested shrewdly in early motion pictures, and his wealth grew. He moved from the address on Lexington Avenue to a palatial spread in Connecticut. There was nothing to suggest that he married, no reference to any children.
Dunne asked his wife if she had uploaded photographs from his childhood onto the laptop. She was surprised but very taken by the idea. It was clear she was not responsible for the contents of the anonymous folder.
Days passed, a full week during which he shunned the computer. The images and films had triggered memories that he began to reappraise. He found himself repeatedly revisiting his past. He felt drawn to the laptop, fought the temptation and then gave in.
The line of folders stood before him, the one on the far right three down was unlabelled. He entered. The next file in the series was a PDF, 27/10/1976 17:14. Two pages from the school magazine, an account he had written, risible nonsense about a teachers versus pupils football match. A puerile piece, embarrassing in the implicit toadying to the teachers that masqueraded as irony. Dunne was dismayed by the pretentious juvenilia but knew it summed him up as he was then.
He closed the next image as soon as it appeared on the screen. Another page from the magazine. He recognized the piece in the bottom corner, the shape of the text, the twelve lines. It was the poem he had written and regretted submitting. He could not face reading those contrived, adolescent words. Dunne had kept a copy of the magazine but had lost it during the transient period of his life when he regularly ferried boxes of belongings from flat to flat.
He moved the cursor over the subsequent images dated from 1977 and 1978. He examined the photographs of schoolmates. Those of groups were obviously posed for, others were of figures standing or sitting but not looking at the camera. Some were of a single person walking out of shot. One of a leg. One of the sky with a sliver of sun escaping a cloud. Three of the ground. One took in an unlaced shoe. The images felt fresh, alive, an impromptu capture of random moments over thirty years in the past. Who had held the camera and taken these pictures?
Some of the faces he recognised immediately. The slit-eyed bully gurning at the camera now ran a shop that Dunne often passed. It sold trinkets and gewgaws. The man was unchanged in appearance apart from the grey thatch of hair that once was black.
Another schoolmate Dunne had met recently, the fragile balding head, lined face and perceptible stoop difficult to discern in the smiling 16-year old that stared at him from the screen. They spoke for ten minutes, a desultory exchange of small talk concerning their teachers and contemporaries.
Dunne revealed nothing about himself and was relieved when they parted. Pictures of others he remembered imprecisely but could not name. Vague attributes came to mind; good humour, spite, kindness, dishonesty, stupidity.
And then Dunne reached an image dated 14/02/1978 17:12, a photograph of Stephen with his motorbike, a Kawasaki Z1000. He stood straddling the bike, leaning forward, helmet dangling from his hand. Dunne relived the breath-whipping sensation seated on the back of the bike as it sped along country roads, dipping crazily to take corners. His awe and panic at his dependency on his brother’s control of the growling machine.
The image was followed by a film, 17 seconds duration. He clicked without thinking and closed his eyes. When he opened them, he saw a flat surface. Then a fluorescent light. The view switched to a door with a window. The interior was a nebulous grey. A voice to his side, his mother: “It’s time to go in.” The perspective changed, he could see the side of her face and her hand on Robert’s shoulder. He knew his father was present.
The door was opened inwards, moving inside. A nervous cough. A chair with a folded newspaper on the seat. A window with Venetian blinds partially closed. The end of a bed. A slow pan along the covers and the shape of a body beneath. On to the pillows and a face. The screen went blank.
Dunne ran a hand over his face and squeezed his eyes. The hospital room where Stephen had lain after his motorbike crash. The room where Stephen died. Dunne could hear his wife calling him from downstairs. He shut down the laptop and joined her, his legs leaden.
He sat beside her at the kitchen table. She had laid out a series of photographs in neat rows like the files in the computer folder. Photographs of Dunne. As a baby. Sitting on a blanket under those billowing sheets. Standing beside the go-cart. With old Mrs. Brennan. Holding Tom in his arms. Seated on the back of the Kawasaki with Stephen. Dunne asked his wife if it was possible to store an unnamed folder on the computer hard disk.
She looked at him quizzically. “Of course not,” she replied. “It would be labelled ‘Untitled’.”
* * *
Since his retirement, Dunne regularly treated himself to afternoon coffee in his favourite café. He liked to sit outside at a table close to the edge of the pavement. At the corner where a quaint tree lined side-street intersected a wide avenue. He watched the traffic that swept by, keeping count of the vehicles he judged were breaking the speed limit. Six out of twenty in the past two minutes.
He eyed the pent-up drivers released from the shackles of the traffic lights at the top of the avenue. Disgruntled, problems at work preying on their minds, frustration bubbling within waiting to erupt. Those petty niggles had once been part of his life.
He wrote in his notebook, a record of a telephone conversation with his aunt regarding his great-uncle. “A very severe man,” she had said, “bitter and vengeful.” He had disowned his family, damned them all to hell over a dispute involving an inheritance or property; she did not know the details. Samuel Dunne, a self-made man, disparaged weakness in others and abhorred failure. There was no question of his helping his younger siblings in straitened circumstances.
Dunne had reached a watershed in his attitude to the folder. He was no longer apprehensive when thinking about it but used it as a regular prompt to summon his past. If anything, he was flattered by the existence of such a record. After all, he had led a very ordinary life. There had been no great affirming highs or crushing lows. A life he now realised that was built on half-truths, introversion and hollow stridence.
He had brooded over the likelihood of a future determined by his past, but any attempt to break free had been half-hearted at best. His attitude could not have been more different from his great-uncle who had not permitted anyone or anything to get in the way of his success. Dunne knew he must confront his weaknesses and use the laptop as his guide.
Some of the photographs were quite extraordinary, none more so than those of Lisa. This was the girl he had pursued in vain in his sixteenth year in a gauche and ham-fisted manner with stolen flowers and stolen poems. He had been infatuated by Lisa. Her long, reddish-blonde hair, her pocket watch that was a family heirloom, her superior understanding of life.
He was still coming to grips with the 17-second film he had last watched. A row of books appeared on the screen. A hand reaching for a magazine. Jerky views of faces. The sense of hurried movement and then the grim security man.
When the film ended, Dunne could feel the iron grip on his elbow thirty years after the act. He suffered again the embarrassment of the subsequent confrontation. Accusation and proof of shoplifting. The threat of police involvement. He received a thrashing from his father when he had been brought home. The incursion of this event from the past into his present was particularly jarring. It left him wondering what else awaited him on the laptop.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Keane