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The Laptop

by Mark Keane

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


He had opened less than half the files and had the distinct impression that the content was being replenished; files had been added to the folder. It did not matter, he would work his way systematically through the entire set.

The next batch dealt with the late 1970s and early 1980s, his university years. He scanned images of filled and half-empty lecture halls. Faces that were disconcertingly unfamiliar. The mathematics professor who spoke into the blackboard that he covered with differentials and integrals.

Dunne enjoyed the snapshots of the college bar and his coterie of friends. The reminders of Rag Week. Dunkings in the canal, painted faces and laughter.

He lingered for some time over an image dated 8/5/1980 23:58. A party in a crowded student house. A typically cramped and grubby living room with battered cheap furniture. Groups gathered around a plastic bin that must have held home-distilled rotgut beer or wine. He felt a surge of surprise when, in a corner, he could make out his wife holding a cup in one hand. The other was raised as she gesticulated.

That single snapshot with her hand forever raised and the animated expression on her face captured for Dunne the essence of his first tentative weeks and months with her. She was a force of nature and had carried him in her wake, enlivening and colouring his dull and restrained existence. He remembered that night. Scanlon, an acquaintance, told him at the door that Ian Curtis from Joy Division had committed suicide. Then Dunne met his wife for the first time.

He had taken money from his mother’s purse to pay for the bottles he brought to the party. It was not the first time nor the last. His mother knew he stole from her, but there had been no confrontation or recrimination. She let him know through her displays of martyrdom.

The next image from 12/12/1983 12:03 was a close up of a clock, at just past twelve. The chipped glass triggered a dim resonance that grew when he made out the lettering on the face, William & Smith London. This was the clock from the family kitchen. He clicked on the film that followed, the next 17-second instalment.

There was the same clock and he could hear the ticking, that loud ticking in the kitchen, which proclaimed the remorseless passage of time. All the way to this moment with the middle-aged Dunne facing a computer screen in a present that he could not have imagined in the time he was revisiting.

He saw his mother leaning on the cupboard stacked with cookery books, a ball of shredded tissue held to her nose. She was looking at him with raw accusing eyes. “You won’t do this one thing, just for me if not for him.” Silence, the camera unmoving.

Oh yes, Dunne remembered that scene. His mother’s request that he attend his father’s funeral. A request he could not grant. She begged him to relent, but he refused. He turned off the laptop and sat staring at the empty screen.

* * *

Weeks of research in the library had unearthed documents linking Samuel Dunne the film entrepreneur with covert groups that practiced esotericism. His aunt’s words came back to him: “Your great-uncle was wicked, a thoroughly evil man.” Dunne recognized that he must have been a complex character. Though it interested him greatly, the search for his antecedent was taking a back seat to the investigation of his own past.

He set a limit on the number of files he accessed from the folder during each session on the laptop. Three or four but no more. He was charged with anticipation beforehand and felt energised as never before. Dunne examined every square inch of each image on the screen, savouring the details as he re-experienced his life.

It was a richer experience this time around. He had lived his life at a remove, second-hand, as though it had been someone else’s life. The pictures of his wedding in the registry office held many surprises. In particular, the close-up of the registrar with a birthmark that covered much of her neck and cheek. How had he forgotten that ruby discoloration? How had he forgotten so much?

Even more intriguing were the photographs that, he knew from the dates, must be of their honeymoon in Lisbon. The images were aimless. Many of featureless sky, water, sand, distant horizon obscured in haze. A bewildering view of fish mouths gaping from the surface of the Tagus. A table bearing a plate of chicken with a half filled glass of wine to one side. There were a number of street scenes that seemed spontaneous, capturing unknown figures, locals, visitors and children. Images of graffiti-emblazoned junction boxes. Of a discarded sandwich wrapper. Of a dried fountain littered with cigarette butts. Why these particular views?

And then he came to an image of his wife seated beside the statue of Pessao who was also seated. She was distracted as she tried to keep her straw hat in place. Dunne recalled the abrupt forceful winds that passed through the city.

He sat gazing at his wife. Her uncertain smile transported him to that time and place. Then to other connected and disconnected places and times. He was assailed by myriad sensations, tastes, half formed plans, wilful ideas and unacted intentions.

Dunne was suffused in the equivocal, in misremembered hopes. In mistakes. In his apathy, his anger and dissatisfaction. He had once kept a diary for six months in 1986 that he had lost. He could now re-read the diary in the folder. How time had altered perspective. What was then urgent and possibly life-changing had been lost.

One image showed an entry from week 5, February. “Meeting with N. tomorrow, very nervous.” He had no notion who N. was or what the meeting concerned. He tried but could not retrieve any memories to account for his anxiety at that time. It felt like recalling a detail from a film he had once seen, not an important event in his life.

How much better was the electronic diary. How superior was a picture to even the most descriptive text, and film was even better. How wonderful it was for Dunne to have this record to consult. He considered going back over past images. No, it was better to press on in chronological order. He would begin again at the start when he reached the final file.

* * *

Dunne was sitting outside the café at his habitual end table. The sun shone from a cloudless azure sky. It had been too stuffy to stay indoors. His wife wanted him out from under her feet. She had to prepare the house for the visit of Robert and his two daughters. She suggested he take the laptop and continue his work al fresco. Dunne removed the computer from its bag and placed it on the table away from the iced tea he had ordered.

He had to turn his chair so that his back was to the road in order to avoid the sun’s glare and view clearly the computer screen. He read the document he was working on that morning. It concerned the first nickelodeons in New York, converted storefronts that accommodated a hundred or so patrons. Seated on hard wooden chairs they came to witness the wonder of the moving picture projected on a screen.

His great-uncle had died on his way from one of the picture houses he owned. The obituary in the newspaper archival website described a freak accident. Samuel Dunne was struck down by an automobile as he crossed 42nd Street, an early fatality of jaywalking. In another report, the car was identified as a Pierce-Arrow. The laptop had taken him to a site that provided a history of the automobile manufacturer based in Buffalo.

His great-uncle’s death was senseless. A life of achievement ended in an arbitrary and avoidable way. All the schemes his great-uncle must have been formulating were wiped out when he crossed in front of the Pierce-Arrow. A life ultimately unfulfilled as a result of haphazard mischance.

It was still not too late for Dunne. The past was fixed. He could not begin again but there was much to be recovered from this life. The laptop had shown him how he should act. He owed it to his wife.

Living with him must have been a continual grind. He could see it in the tightening about her eyes, the involuntary wince when he once again undermined her attempt to try something new. He choked her spontaneity, cast a wet blanket on all her efforts. There was still time for him to reclaim their lives.

His thoughts as usual turned to the unlabelled folder and its perplexing contents. Dunne was disappointed by the more recent entries, those covering a ten-year period from the mid-1990s. The images still seemed unplanned. They were incidental and mundane.

He had clicked through innumerable photographs of dull buildings, street corners and railway stations that defined his trips to and from work. Front covers of books he had read and forgotten or that he had not finished. Views of the parking lot at the supermarket where he shopped each Thursday. Faces obscured as they were turned away or were too close to the camera or blurred by movement. An assortment of Francis Bacon portraits of work colleagues, acquaintances and passersby. Ancillary members of the cast of his life.

There was the 17-second film shot underwater with a confusion of eddies and bubbles and violent water movement. This was of his near-fatal swimming accident in July 2003. It did not carry the impact of previous films. Was he becoming desensitised to his recaptured past? Surely not. He had not grown weary of his life history. He was more concerned with shaping his future. It would begin today.

Dunne had never felt such purpose. He would return to the family tree project, flesh out the material he had gathered and write the life of Samuel Dunne. A biography that placed him in the context of his time and his beginnings. A rounded portrait of this uncompromising man.

He would discuss this with Robert. Dunne had been dreading his brother’s visit. He viewed it now as an opportunity to test his new resolve. He would bring the girls to the cinema, whatever they wanted to see. And a family dinner in the new restaurant his wife had been pressing him to try. Invigorated, he understood what it meant to have an appetite for life.

Why not make a visit to the memory folder, the electronic chronicle of Samuel Dunne? It would be the first time he had explored the folder outside his study. What could better complement this glorious summer’s day?

The folder was almost empty. Dunne felt a stab of panic. Had he deleted files unwittingly? This was disastrous. The worst of all possible eventualities. Who had destroyed his precious past? He clicked on an image, today’s date, the time was now, this minute. A photograph of Dunne from behind and staring at a laptop screen. This screen. This very moment. Dunne staring at the back of his own head on the screen. On the same screen. The café table and iced tea visible.

This was impossible. An awareness flashed through his mind. It was the first time Dunne had appeared on the laptop. What about the other files? What was left? He clicked on the film reel icon.

Another 17-second film. Excruciating white screen, the familiar cloudiness then a sharp image of a car moving at speed, accelerating. Panning to the windscreen, the driver with his hands to his chest and off the wheel, his face expressing severe pain. Zooming out, the car veering off course. The avenue came into view. The screen went blank. Dunne heard shrieking. He sensed movement around him. Tables and chairs scraping against the ground. A roar behind him. A car engine.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Keane

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