© Josie Henley-Einion
YouWriteOn offers publishing for writers to help them reach new readers who like their writing.
Click here to email us for details.
“Ours not to reason why, eh Nell?” says Mr. Clayton with false camaraderie.
“Ours but to do or die, Mr. Clayton.” I am anxious to demonstrate that I am not as dim as I may seem.
“Quite, quite. But you are hardly in mortal danger.”
“Falsifying data is not in my job description.”
He coughs. He puts down his coffee cup. My desk is polluted with spillage. “Well now, if it comes to job descriptions…” He rocks on the balls of his feet. I remain seated as he stands by the desk, his hips at my eye level. I ignore the bulge of his penis as he thrusts it towards my face. I turn to my monitor.
“Nell, Nell,” he says gently. “What can I say?” He opens his wide hands in a shrug of defeat. “This has come from above.” He pulls up a chair and sits. I twist to face him. He sighs and picks up his coffee. “My hands are tied.” His hands are not tied. He flaps them around in useless gestures, knocking over my files and spilling his coffee again.
When he is gone I clean up. My desk in order, I stare at the table data.
New statistics. I type. Tip tap. Tip. Tap.
Confidentiality ensured. Database password protected. Resurrecting old code.
Dim swift fingers; dim eagle eyes; dim dum keep shtum. Correspondence confidential; circumstances exceptional.
I can’t settle to anything this afternoon. An email from Jane, followed by a text message asking if I’ve seen the email. I am replying when she rings. “Why haven’t you answered?”
“I’m busy,” I lie. “I’m a very busy and important person.” If I make a joke out of it, I can avert the spiralling row.
“Well, what do you think? Should we get a Civil Partnership or not?” It is her third time of asking, so she can be forgiven for her impatience, perhaps.
“You know how much I would love to. I’m just thinking about the money. We’d want to do it properly, to invite all the family, my mother, your… I mean…”
“Just tell me, Nell,” I can hear her voice thicken even through the static of her mobile phone. The sound of daytime TV rises in the background, indicative of Jane’s ‘work from home’ days. “If you don’t want me any more, just tell me.” I wince at her words. I picture her rounded face crinkling with anxiety. My beloved’s blue eyes welling with tears. How beautiful she is compared to my mousy, bespectacled nondescriptness. How lucky I am to be with her.
“I do! I do want you. How many times do we have to…?”
“Well you’ve got a funny way of showing it.”
I sigh. I tell myself that she is at a difficult time in her life. “I do want to marry you, Jane. I do. Let me look at the figures again.”
“Huh, you and your figures,” she mutters and rings off.
Figures and values; my raison d’etre. It is impossible to reconcile what Mr Clayton has asked me to do. It is illogical, immoral and supremely idiotic. I backup the database and go home. I consider buying flowers, but dismiss this thought. It would make Jane more suspicious. I am not like her ex-lovers, every one of which betrayed her, but she can’t help treating me as if I am. I wonder if subconsciously she wants me to leave her so she can be proved right.
“You’re early,” she says as I hang my keys on the hook. She notices my expression and her tone changes. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t hassle you about it.” I place my briefcase in its spot and move into a hug. “That bad, huh?” she says. When I still don’t answer she pulls away and holds my cheeks in both hands. “Talk to me.”
I don’t know what to say. I can’t meet her eyes. The problem is insurmountable. “I hate it when you get like this,” she says. She turns her back; fills the kettle; slams two mugs on the surface. I wince. She swings around again and looks at me, arms folded. I slump into the kitchen chair. I know what’s coming. “Who is she, then?”
Jane’s assumption: all that is wrong must be to do with her; all nasties must be an affair. Nothing could possibly be worse than that. I shake my head and sink it into my hands. “It’s work. I don’t want to talk about it.”
She snorts; dumps teabags into mugs; pours boiling water; stomps to the fridge; throws milk into the tea; turns back to me. I watch a translucent dribble meander down the cupboard door until I can bear it no longer and reach for a cloth. “I’ll do it,” she says, snatching the cloth from me. She wipes it on surface and door, smearing the milk over a wider area. I itch to correct it but know that this will infuriate her.
Jane thrusts the mug at me. My Tigger mug. Always Tigger for tea and Eyore for coffee. She walks into the lounge without a word. I know how this program will process. Like a machine, we each have our function. She will persist in asking what’s wrong, continue to hint and niggle; I will resist, assuring her that it’s nothing, asking her to please respect my right to remain silent. Eventually she’ll have enough of waiting and then: System Failure. All will tumble forth in words that I have not rehearsed; that get mixed up; that contradict each other; that insult her. Somehow she will feel that I’m blaming her for something that has absolutely nothing to do with her. That she probably need not know.
Let’s skip that tonight.
I lean against the doorjamb, Tigger mug in hand. Jane looks up from her book. I try a weak smile. “I may lose my job.” Her face whitens. She stands and lets the book slip to the floor. Perhaps something is worse than an affair after all.
“What happened?” she whispers.
“It’s more about what didn’t happen,” I say, sitting down.
She sits next to me and retrieves her book. I notice the metallic cover, bold short author name and the title: a cipher; a biblical reference. Another DaVinci Clone.
“Don’t get cryptic with me, Nell. Tell me what you mean.”
I sigh. I pick up a framed photograph of Susie from the coffee table. It is dated by a few years. She grins out at me in her junior blazer: pigtailed; bespectacled; freckled; guileless. Far from the glamorous model student she has become. I replace it and turn to Jane, my mouth open to speak.
The front door crashes open then bangs shut. Thudding footsteps on the stairs. A bedroom door slams. My mouth is still open. Jane levers herself from the sofa. Points a finger at me. “Hold that thought,” she says.
Guiltily I relax as Susie’s misdemeanour has given me reprieve. I sip my tea, regrouping my thoughts. I hear Jane’s voice as she stands at the bottom of the stairs.
“Is it too much to ask for a ‘hello’ when you come home?”
I cringe, knowing that my own arrival under a cloud will have added to Susie’s scolding. Voices are raised above me as they go over their mother-daughter issues. I consider my own problems. I have clawed my way to Senior Programmer since joining the Trust eight years ago as a data input clerk. My first full-time job since Susie was born. Not my life’s plan but a necessary evil. Now that I have a degree of autonomy and a reasonable salary, I find myself comfortable. We afford the mortgage, run two cars, pay school fees (ballet lessons, piano, uniform, trips…) and holiday abroad.
All this will change. How could it possibly not?
Jane returns. “You were about to say why you think you might lose your job.”
“If you discovered something at the university,” I begin. She sits back for the long wait. “Something unethical in research for instance. What would you do?”
“What have you found out?”
“If someone had fudged their results or falsified their returns for a paper, so they’d get more funding. Would you speak out?”
“Get to the point, Nell. What’s going on?”
“Even if it meant you’d probably lose your job?”
“I wouldn’t lose my job. They have procedures for this kind of thing, you know. What have you found out?”
“Okay. Say for instance they were falsifying student records. Enrolling made-up names onto courses. Say it went right up to senior management. Even with the threat of industrial tribunal, they’d find a way to sack you. You’d never work again, they’d make sure of it. Not at any other university in the country.”
“Is that what’s happened? They want you to create patients?”
Details, details. I hold her eye-contact for a moment and look away.
“Something like that.” I’m not sure I want to tell her the fundamental fact, considering her own recent bereavement.
“Let’s just say that something is rotten in the state.”
“Right,” she says. She blows out a whistling breath.
“Mr Clayton, it is bad luck to meddle with death. You really should not ask me to do this.”
“Nell, we’re not reanimating corpses. It is a matter of figures, that’s all.”
All? Figures are my life. “I cannot in all conscience falsify records. Think of the relatives if nothing else.”
“The data are anonymous, as you well know. I think that you’re blowing this out of all proportion.” He taps his desk with a pen. He leans forward in his chair. I lean back. “The Trust needs money. We are in a huge deficit. It is everyone’s responsibility to find ways of saving funds. We need to reach the targets. You realise that your refusal will have serious implications. Services will be compromised. People may die.”
Everyone dies. It is only a matter of when.
“I do not believe that the end justifies the means,” I say. He raises his eyebrows. He is unused to resistance from subordinates. “There are other ways of gaining funding. The research implications from this are serious in themselves. If we under-report death rates and over-report recovery, how will that compromise the service? How many people may be affected in the future due to a skewed prognosis?”
He stares at me. I am smug. This is something that he had not considered, short-sighted as he is. He leans back in his chair and puts his hands behind his head. “Of course,” he says quietly. Then he leans forward again. He looks at me directly. “Put it out of your mind, Nell. It was foolish of me to ask you. I know what you’re like about numbers.”
I arrive home at the same time as Susie. I wait for her so that I can lock the gate. “Can you help me with my Latin homework?” she says as I open the front door.
“Yep,” I sling my keyring over the hook and toss my bag into its spot. I am pleased that I am not totally useless after all.
“Banging,” she says. She leans on my shoulder to look into the kitchen, at Jane. “Hello,” she announces, provocatively ostentatious.
“Hello,” says Jane coolly. Susie scampers upstairs, assuring me she’ll be back with her books. Jane looks at me. “Honestly!” she says. “What was all that about?”
“Homework. I’m helping her, apparently.”
“Good for you,” says Jane.
“How was your day?” I ask.
“Another endless circuit of marking, meetings and preparation. Very depressing.”
“Do you have homework?”
I nod. I sort the change from my bag. Coppers into the pickle jar; silver into the jam jar; pound coins in my zipped pocket for the carpark.
We all three sit down in the study with books, papers and cups of tea. Jane is working on another research proposal. I enjoy Latin with Susie. Facts are my friends.
“The Latin of the legionaries was surely more colourful and alive than the Latin that exists in sterile form today. Lingua Latina mortua esse. I don’t think so. The source of so much of our lexicon: it would not be possible to eradicate, even if this were desirable. Chemistry, horticulture, medicine all root themselves in the lingua pater. Latin is very much here to stay. Id amo.”
Susie is less circumspect than I. “Latin is a dead language,” she says. “I don’t know why they insist on dragging it around like a rotting corpse.”
“You would advocate etymological euthanasia?” I ask.
“Whatever,” she says.
“It’s all Greek to me,” says Jane.
“Blatero, blaterare,” I say and Susie tries to hide her giggle.
Later, when Susie is in her room and we’re watching TV, Jane asks, “Did you tell him you wouldn’t do it?”
“And,” I sigh. “He says to forget about it.”
She snorts. “I wouldn’t trust him.”
“I don’t.” I produce a zip disk from my jacket pocket. I flip it over a couple of times. “Amazing how much data you can fit on these things,” I say. “You know, my first computer probably had a tenth of the memory capacity of this.” I slip the disk into a space on the CD shelf.
Jane smiles. “Good work, Miss Marple,” she says.
Several months later, after I have been shunted into a different department, the Trust Annual Report is circulated.
“There’s morbid,” says Olive. “What’re you looking at the death rates for?”
“I like figures,” I say. They take this as a sexual innuendo. Guffaws all around.
I do remember rightly. I have a head for numbers, though I’m terrible with names and faces. At home I blow the dust off the zip disk. It is always a good idea to validate a suspicion.
There is indeed a discrepancy. Enough to be significant. I ponder what to do with this potentially explosive information. I tap the keyboard lightly. asdf g h jkl;
Susie is close to GCSE’s. The school fees problem will cease soon enough. Sure to be replaced by something else. Deposit for a flat; driving lessons; university fees. After all we went through with the fertility clinic. The treatment costs; travelling to London; pretending we were ‘just friends’ and not a couple. Jane’s illness during pregnancy; nearly losing the baby. We knew the expense then was only the beginning of a life sentence. How could we have predicted house and fuel price hikes, teenage obsession with designer technology, or the myriad other unexpected outgoings over the years?
Families now can no longer manage to exist as single-breadwinner units. We did it when Susie was small due to the cost of childcare outweighing my potential earnings. Jane had two jobs; we both worked part-time; finally I got the break I needed in the Trust. Until that time Susie was unhappily unfulfilled in state school and we lived hand-to-mouth. It was much simpler then: if we couldn’t afford it then we didn’t buy it. Now with credit cards and remortgages I find that I have less spending money per month than when I was ‘poor’.
What this means to us is that we barely afford Susie, let alone the much-discussed potential second child. We live on a knife-edge. Leaving my job would send us quickly down the pan. But is it really too late? Without employment, would I get the chance to utilise my womb? We could downsize, certainly. We have considered self-sufficiency, emigration. Is this a pipe dream or could it really work?
I’d like to think that I would do the right thing. It takes guts to be a hero. Of course I will blow the whistle on this. I simply need a bit of time to prepare myself.
I switch off the computer. Walking through to the lounge, I flip the zip disk over and over in my hand. I replace it on the CD shelf. I’ll think about it later.
Jane’s quiet sobs echo through the lounge. I have already been in to offer tissues; a hug; a cup of tea. She wants to be left alone. Susie and I sit in the dining room.
“Mum’s thinking about Grandma again, isn’t she?” says Susie.
I nod. She looks at her plate. “Maybe we should go on holiday?” she says, perking up at her bright idea. “That would give her a boost, wouldn’t it?”
“Mmm,” I mumble through a mouthful of food.
“It’s ages since we’ve been away, Nell,” she whines. She used to call me ‘Mummy Nell’ before she grew out of it.
“Where would you propose to go?” I ask.
She shrugs. “I don’t know. Paris? She likes the Louvre. Italy? Didn’t she say she’d always wanted to go?”
I smile. She has grown up at last. There was a time when Susie would have proposed somewhere she herself wanted to go. “It’s a lovely thought, Susie,” I say. “But I’m not sure that we can afford it at the moment.”
“But we never go away!” she stamps her foot. That cusp between childhood and adulthood wears thinner every day.
“Listen young lady,” I begin. “When I was a child we didn’t have holidays abroad. We were lucky to go camping in North Wales.”
“Here we go,” she says. “Get the violins out. And you only had three channels on the telly and you had to walk everywhere because you didn’t have a car. God, you’re so boring!”
She storms out of the room, leaving me to clear the dishes. I sit for a while before creeping into the lounge. Jane is draped over the edge of the sofa, her beautiful copper hair covering her face.
“Hey,” I say, placing my hand on her shoulder. She turns to face me and then buries her head into my armpit. I shift to a more comfortable position. “Want to talk?” I coax. I am not good with emotion: I prefer facts. Most of our friends are astounded that we manage to communicate at all, Jane being so insecure, volatile and emotional, and myself the total opposite. What they don’t see is that she is emotional enough for both of us. Over the years we have found a formula that works, albeit with the occasional hiccup.
“There is so much I wanted to tell her, to share with her. I thought I had time.”
“I tell myself that crying won’t bring her back.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Let’s go on holiday. What about Italy?” I don’t want to mention the word ‘honeymoon’.
She breaks out in a fresh wave of sobs. “Mum always wanted to go to Italy.”
lbl_Status.Caption = "Reading Record no: " + Str(int_Record_No) + " of " + Str(int_Total_Records)
If bl_Transferred = False Then
I blink. It takes a few moments to refocus my lens; to adjust my retina; to realign my brain. I turn to where my name is being called. I stare blankly with large cow-eyes at my assistant, Olive. At first I don’t recognise her, so deeply was I buried in the pit of the code. Gradually my social senses return and I smile. I stop smiling when I see Olive’s wary expression.
“It’s really freaky when you do that, you know,” she says.
“Sorry,” I smile again. Switch it on; switch it off. My smile is like a relay device from a 1950’s computer. “I get a bit,” I shrug, “caught up.”
“Well there was a message for you,” she hands me a piece of paper and then proceeds to tell me anyway. “It’s your old department: they’ve got a bug or something. They said it was urgent or I wouldn’t have disturbed you.”
I look at my watch. I take a sip of water. “Okay,” I say. “I’ll go now and then have lunch when I get back.”
I check first with Prof Green, my new manager. She likes to keep a log of who is in the office and who is out. For fire control purposes, though there is a silent acknowledgement among the staff that Prof is a bit of a control freak. I pop my head around her office door and wave mutely. She is on the phone, barking harshly at some poor minion. I mime walking out and she gives a thumbs up.
A bug. What possible bug could there be? That code is robust, virtually idiot-proof: only meddling would cause a problem. As I walk the hospital grounds, blossom drifts through the air like snow. It is spring again and I hadn’t noticed.
I am greeted by Mr. Clayton himself. He seems nervous and shakes my hand. He overestimates his smile and shows me his wisdom teeth. He asks how my new position is progressing and I give him a non-committal reply. I’d rather not antagonise him regarding those figures but cannot stop the thought from taking shape in the back of my mind. I no longer trust him; I cannot meet his eye. As if telepathic, he stiffens and becomes more formal.
I decline the glass of water he offers and he escorts me to my old desk. I am reminded of a programmers’ legend.
A pre-millennium COBOL guy was peeved with his company. They referred to his code as ‘medieval’. He programmed a daemon to destroy the database and email vital business information to a rival. If he entered the passkey it would hold another month. Sabotage was common then so that sacked programmers would be escorted to their desks to pack and then straight out of the building. A month following his disemployment, the company bombed.
I have more integrity.
A bright young thing in a sharp suit sits at my desk. Her desk. She stands to shake my hand, bending over the desk as she does so. I look at the ceiling to avoid the cleavage foisted upon me. She is barely older than Susie: much more malleable than I from Mr. Clayton’s point of view.
“Nell, this is Claire; Claire, Nell.” Mr. Clayton, beaming again, flaps his fat hands around during the introductions. He stands to one side as I find another chair to pull up to the desk. “Well, I’ll leave you two to it, then.” He wanders off, whistling to himself.
There is confusion initially as to who should sit where. Claire recommends that I sit at the computer while she sits to one side. She squeezes between the two chairs and directs me into the confined space. I breathe in to pass her, but as I do so she moves slightly forward and our thighs brush. “Sorry,” I murmur. She sits and pulls her chair a little back.
“So. What seems to be the problem?” I ask, aware that I sound like a GP.
“Well,” she grabs the mouse, leans forward again and dangles her breasts over the desk. I turn to the monitor.
We run through the code. I notice a few clumsy additions, one of which glaringly clashes with my own beautiful symphony. “Ah,” I say. “Here it is.” I reach for the mouse without looking and find my hand on hers. I pull back as if burnt and stammer, “S-sorry.”
“That’s okay.” She laughs and leans forward some more. “So, what is it?”
“This, here,” I touch the screen. “This variable is named the same as one of the global variables in another module. That’s going to cause a conflict. You should rename it.”
“Oh,” she looks sheepish. “I didn’t think…” she trails off.
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell him.” I smile paternally. “It’s just a little tweak. I could do it now if you want.” She nods glumly and I turn back to the screen. My fingers tap-dance over the keyboard for a few seconds and I lean back satisfied. “Job done,” I say. I stand up. Again, there is the uncomfortable squeezing in opposite directions to get me out of the space behind the desk and her into it.
“Thank-you,” she says grinning, “thank-you very much, you’ve no idea…” She pumps my arm up and down with her right hand while putting her left onto my shoulder. For one horrendous moment I think she might kiss me in her youthful enthusiasm. She checks herself and I back away.
I pick up my lunch from the office and take it on a bench in the hospital grounds. It is reasonably pleasant: away from the majority of the pigeons and smokers. I brush crumbs from my suit as I walk back through the sunlight, humming one of Susie’s piano pieces. The atmosphere is somewhat chilly when I return to my office. Olive looks up with a grave expression. “Prof wants to speak to you,” she says.
I drop my lunch-box onto the chair and rush to Professor Green’s office. My thoughts race: something has happened to Jane or Susie, it could only be.
“Ah, Nell.” My manager says my name without bothering to hide her distaste. “I’m glad you could make it.” Work then, and not personal.
“I’m sorry, I was on lunch, and before that I was…”
She holds up her hand. “Unnecessary. I know where you were. In fact, that’s what I need to speak to you about. I’d like to ask you why you did it.”
Prof pauses before continuing, sweeping her fringe aside in a practiced gesture of indifference. “I understand that you have issues, but I didn’t think that something like this would be in your nature. Of course, people like you… but I wouldn’t expect it of someone in your position.”
“Could you… just clarify what it is we’re talking about?”
“Claire Malaky has made a complaint against you. The poor girl has gone home in tears by all accounts.” I sit in stunned silence for a few moments until Prof Green speaks again. “Your behaviour this afternoon was unacceptable. It may be possible that we can clear this up without it becoming a formal disciplinary, but…”
“I changed a few lines of code,” I whisper.
“She had caused a bug and I changed some of the code. I explained to her what I was doing; she didn’t seem upset at the time.”
“I’m not talking about the damn code,” snaps the Prof. “You touched her inappropriately; you leered at her; you made suggestive comments.”
I open and close my mouth unable to think of a response.
“You will be suspended on full pay pending an enquiry. You may go, and I suggest that you think long and hard about what you will say in your apology.”
“Mr. Clayton, what’s going on?”
“Ah, Nell. I wondered if you’d telephone.”
Too right I telephoned. I thought about marching around there in person but wouldn’t trust myself not to hit him.
“It seems that Claire has made a complaint,” I say unnecessarily.
“Indeed she has. It looks like you’re in a sticky situation, Nell.”
I flex my fingers; I stretch out on the sofa. I am at home but not enjoying the unexpected free afternoon. I look through the window at a magpie pecking worms from the grass. I wait for him to speak again.
“There are ways in which we can deal with this, Nell,” he says, his voice slimy and condescending. “I’m sure you wouldn’t want to go through a protracted court case that would waste a lot of NHS resources, if you know what I mean.”
“I know exactly what you mean.”
And so it begins.
Claire agrees to drop the complaint. Mr. Clayton ensures that I now owe him a favour. Mud sticks and I am moved on again. I couldn’t work under Prof Green anyway.
lbl_Status.Caption = "Completed."
I had promise myself that once Susie was through her GCSE’s I would blow that whistle. But then, I have already been discredited. What else could they drag up? Is it possible that they could resurrect that complaint, or manufacture another? I am not sure of how aware Jane is of this. She is engrossed in her latest research and away at conferences. I protect her for the duration of my suspension: she thinks I am off sick. I certainly look sick. For how much longer I can protect her, I do not know. My biggest fear is that she will find out about the accusation, and she will believe it. It will confirm her suspicions that I am just like everyone else. I am damned if I tell her and damned if I don’t.
I take the zipped database from the CD shelf. I am tempted to destroy the disk, but I know I won’t. While the computer is chugging as it copies the database onto another disk, I find a reinforced envelope and begin addressing.
The Secretary of State
The House of Commons…