The Laptop

Issue 5 | Winter 2020 |


Samuel watched as Carol set up the laptop for him. He leafed through the user’s manual, before putting it in a drawer. The laptop was a retirement gift, after forty years in the civil service. Not an end but the beginning of a new chapter, or so he was told at his retirement party. He should use the laptop to explore different possibilities. Why not write a memoir? Samuel Dunne: A Life.

“I’ve finished loading the photos,” Carol said.

The files seemed to go on forever as she scrolled down the screen.

“I’ll leave you to organize them into different folders. Ask if you need any help.”

Once Carol left the study, Samuel opened the first set of files. Pictures from his niece’s graduation, mostly people he didn’t know. One of Carol linking arms with him. He hated seeing himself in photographs. Moving the cursor along the screen, he noticed a folder at the end of a row that didn’t have a title. It contained more files.

Placing the cursor over the first file, a small box popped up: Date created, 12/09/1956. His date of birth. That can’t be right, he thought. He opened the file. It was his birth certificate. Place of birth: Dublin. Father’s profession: plumber. Pristine, virgin white, not the yellowed and creased document he kept in a trunk in the attic. Carol never said anything about putting this on the laptop.

He clicked the second file, dated 22/05/1958, and a grainy black and white image appeared on the screen. His mother in horn-rimmed glasses, hair short and curled, wearing a pencil skirt, blouse and cardigan. It was how he liked to remember her, as a young woman. He had seen similar photographs but not this one. Arms outstretched, eyes gleaming, her face expressing such joy.

“Samuel,” Carol called from downstairs.

He closed everything down and went to see what she wanted. He didn’t ask her about the folder, unsure what to ask and self-conscious about his ignorance of computers. She had already done enough, setting up the laptop. Not even a week into his retirement, he didn’t want to appear totally helpless. It wasn’t important and he decided not to mention it for now.

Later that evening, he climbed into the attic and searched for his birth certificate but couldn’t find it. While he was there, he went through a box containing his old stamp album, Billy Bunter books and Meccano set. Fiddling with the Meccano pieces stirred memories of past Christmases and birthdays. He thought of the photograph of his mother, her kindness and gentleness.

The next time he turned on the laptop, the nameless folder was still there. Had the number of files increased? Possibly, it was hard to tell. He clicked on one with the date 13/04/1959, showing the house where he grew up. Number 34 Saint Lawrence Road, three storeys and a basement, cracked harlequin tiles leading to the front door. A woman stood at the gate. Her head turned away, but Samuel knew it was Mrs. Breen, the widow who had rented rooms on the top floor. He pictured her puffy face and the hairs that sprouted from moles on her chin.

Samuel closed the file and went to the next image. The back garden of Number 32, a clothesline loaded with billowing sheets. In the background, his black and white cat, Tom, ambled towards the coal shed. Samuel remembered the disastrous day when he and Tom prospected for gold among the piles of coal. Tom jumped onto the sheets hanging from the line, leaving a trail of black paw marks. No way to hide the evidence, Tom was barred from the house as punishment.

Another image, 26/06/1960, his two brothers in the lane behind the house. Robert, aged seven, sitting in a homemade cart built from a wooden crate with pram wheels and rudimentary steering using ropes. Standing behind the cart, Jack, the eldest, giving the thumbs up sign to the camera. Samuel felt a queer mixture of wonder and regret. Jack, easy going, never offhand, always interested in what Samuel was doing. He softened the worst of Robert’s bullying.

Images from that summer coincided with Samuel’s earliest memories, when he first became aware of his surroundings. Pictures of Jack and Robert exploring the abandoned manse at the end of the lane. Their mother with a neighbor, sitting in the living room, laughing at a shared joke. Tom stretched out on a sunlit patch of grass.

He came to a document, dated 09/06/1965, a school report with a list of subjects and grades. Geography, A; excellent. English, B; very good. Mathematics, B; very good. Religion, C; good. The headmaster’s summation read: A good boy but difficult to get to know; progress is satisfactory.

Next, an icon that looked like a film reel. It took him to a white screen, then blurred monochrome as the picture came into focus. A page lined in squares, a sloping desk with a ridge and a round hole containing a ceramic pot of ink. A hand holding a nibbed pen, the sleeve of a jumper and a satchel lying against a chair leg.

The view switched to a figure in a dark suit, scrawny turkey neck, widow’s peak. Haddington, his primary school teacher. Samuel turned up the volume.

“You sneaky, slimy snakes. I’ve had enough of you villainous snakes, you nest of vipers.” Haddington came closer. “Particularly you, Dunne, you sneaky adder.”

He bent down, his face filling the screen, long nose and mad eyes. The screen went blank.

It had been a misunderstanding, a mix-up over a broken meter stick. Samuel had done nothing wrong but Haddington wouldn’t listen and blamed him. Samuel got up from his chair, paced the study, still seeing Haddington’s face and feeling the humiliation of that day. He went downstairs and made a cup of coffee for something to do. Carol was out, at lunch with friends. Haddington and his meter stick. When was the last time Samuel had thought about that monster? All that was buried in the past.

Sitting again at the laptop, he clicked another film reel. Though the lighting was poor, he could make out the old range cooker in the kitchen of Number 34. A pair of legs came into view, then an arm. A voice, undeniably his father’s.

“All I ask, boy, is some respect, a little bit of respect.”

He approached the camera. A leather strap swayed in his fist.

“You’ll learn to show respect.”

The strap raised, a confusion of movement and noise, the whack of leather on bare skin. The film ended. The silence in the study magnified, Samuel held his breath. He was back in that kitchen, fifty years later but the fear was the same.

He shut down the laptop. Where had these films come from? It made no sense. A distraction, that’s what he needed, something to take his mind off what he’d seen. Plenty of jobs to do around the house, chores he had put off until retirement. He went from room to room, making a list of repairs. In the upstairs bathroom, he inspected the grouting but couldn’t concentrate, his brain flipping through images from the laptop. The films, Haddington just like he was at school, the beating, exactly how Samuel remembered it.

He busied himself with paperwork relating to his pension, forms to fill, a trip to the bank. The laptop remained closed on his desk, its silver sheen unsettling.

“How are you doing with the photos?” Carol asked. “Let me know if you need any help.”

He said nothing about the folder. The files felt private, for him alone. Seeing the old house and Jack induced a yearning, and with it a swell of tenderness. His childhood, playing with Tom, exploring mysterious cupboards, nooks under the stairs and the dark basement. Going over his list of repairs, his thoughts returned to the laptop and the folder. Immersed in the past, questioning and wondering, he fought the temptation and gave in.

The folder was waiting. He opened pages from the school magazine, an account he had written of a teachers versus pupils football match. A puerile piece, toadying to the teachers and masquerading as irony. Pretentious juvenilia but it summed him up as he was then. Images from 1973, schoolmates standing and sitting, not posing but looking away from the camera. Some he recognized immediately. One who now ran a gift shop hadn’t changed, apart from the gray thatch of hair that once was black. Another he had met recently, the jowls and comb-over unimaginable in the smiling sixteen-year-old on the screen. At least three had died. Others he remembered imprecisely, different attributes coming to mind; generosity, spite, humor, vulgarity.

He lingered over an image of Jack on his motorbike, helmet dangling from his hand. Samuel relived the breath-whipping sensation on the back of the Kawasaki as it sped along country roads, dipping crazily to take corners, his awe at his brother’s control of the growling machine. He clicked the film icon without checking the date. A view of a ceiling and a fluorescent light tube, switching to a door with a window. He heard his mother’s voice.

“It’s time to go in.”

She walked into frame with Robert, her hand on his shoulder. Samuel knew his father was also there. His mother pushed the door open. Robert coughed nervously. Inside, a chair with a folded newspaper on the seat. A window, Venetian blinds partially closed. The end of a bed. A slow pan along the covers, the shape of a body beneath. On to the pillows and a face. The hospital room where Jack lay after his motorbike crash. The room where Jack died.

One afternoon, Carol called him in from the garden.

“I’ve found more photos,” she said.

She laid them out in rows on the kitchen table. All the photographs were of him. As a toddler, sitting on a blanket under billowing sheets. Standing between his mother and Mrs. Breen. Holding Tom in his arms. The photographs were dull and lifeless after what he’d seen on the laptop.

“Can you have an unnamed folder on a computer?” he asked.

“The default setting is New Folder.” Carol gave him a quizzical look. “Why do you ask?”

“No reason, just wondering.”

He waited for her to say something about the folder. Instead, she gathered up the photographs.

“I can put these on the laptop, if you like.”

“No,” he replied, “there’s no need for that.”

Samuel whiled away afternoons in cafés, observing the people around him. The mother hissing at her two children, what was in her past that made her so angry? The businessman grimacing as he checked his phone, was he haunted by a shameful incident as a child, some cruelty or misunderstanding? How much did anyone remember of their past? Samuel had stopped questioning where the folder came from. It belonged to him, a record of his life. The past was not a dead thing for Samuel, it was alive on the laptop.

The films lasted ten or twenty seconds, no more than a glimpse, the duration of a memory. One began with a view of a hand reaching for magazines arranged on a shelf. Then, hurried movement and the grim face of a security man. Samuel could feel the iron grip on his arm forty years after the act. Accused of shoplifting, he had brazened it out at the time but felt his shame all the more deeply now. What else waited for him on the laptop? He had opened more than half the files. Better to take it slowly and savor each recaptured moment.

His university years, half-empty lecture halls and the maths professor who covered the blackboard with an illegible scrawl. Samuel was captivated by snapshots in the college bar of his coterie of friends. The excitement of Rag Week, dunkings in the canal, painted faces and laughter. Each visit to the laptop had an element of the unexpected, not knowing exactly what was coming next. His brain tingled with anticipation, going through photos from a student party, scrutinizing each face. In one, a group gathered around a plastic bin that must have held home-brewed beer or wine. His eyes led him along a line to Carol, standing with a cup in one hand, the other raised in the air. Samuel had not forgotten that night. Scanlon, who was throwing the party, told him he heard on the radio that Groucho Marx had died. They toasted the comedy genius. Then, he met Carol for the first time. Her animated face on the screen brought back their first tentative weeks and months together. Captivated and intimated, marveling at her easy confidence, a time of flux, constant movement, forward, always going forward.

He paused whenever he came to a film, steadying himself before clicking the icon. A close-up of a clock, lettering on the face: William & Smith London. A familiar ticking, the sound that had announced the passage of time in Number 34. His mother, leaning against a cupboard stacked with plates, a ball of shredded tissue held to her nose. She looked at him with raw accusing eyes.

“You won’t do this one thing, for me, if not for him.”

His mother’s request that he attend his father’s funeral. A request he could not grant. She begged him but he refused.

Samuel allowed himself one session on the laptop per day, no more than five files per session. He studied every square inch of the computer screen. Afterwards, he went for long walks with no particular destination, walking to regulate his thoughts as he digested what he had seen. Going over every detail, re-experiencing his life.

He replayed the film from his wedding to make sure he didn’t miss anything. The registry office austere, he was struck by the lack of occasion. The registrar had a birthmark that covered much of her neck and cheek. He had forgotten that as he had forgotten so many other things. Images from their honeymoon in Lisbon. Not pictures as such but impressions, arbitrary views of shops, monuments, sky, a distant horizon obscured in haze. The gaping mouths of fish in the Tagus. A table with a plate of chicken and a glass of wine. Graffiti emblazoned junction boxes. A dried fountain littered with cigarette butts. Carol sitting beside the statue of the seated Pessao, distracted, trying to keep her straw hat in place. Samuel recalled the abrupt winds that passed through Lisbon. Her hesitant smile transported him to that time and place and to other places and times, a myriad of sensations, tastes, voices, half-formed plans and unacted intentions.

He had kept a diary for six months in 1989. Pages from the diary were in the folder. Samuel was fascinated by the minutiae, the meals he ate, the films he had seen and the books he had read. An entry from week 5, February 2nd: Meeting with N. tomorrow, very nervous. He had no notion who N. was or what the meeting was about. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t remember.

Two months into retirement, Samuel still hadn’t made a start on the home repairs. No rush, nothing urgent required fixing, nothing that couldn’t wait until the days got shorter. In late August, Robert came to visit with Lucy, his daughter.

“How are you handling the void of retirement?” he asked.

“It’s not that bad,” Samuel laughed off the jibe and turned his attention to Lucy. “I hear you’ve been accepted to do a PhD. You must be excited.”

Lucy shrugged in a show of indifference.

“She’s worked hard for it.” Robert gave Samuel one of his stern looks. “She’s not going for an easy option, like the civil service.”

Samuel let the remark pass. Carol took Lucy into the sitting room, leaving the two of them at the kitchen table.

“Do you ever think of Jack?” Samuel asked.

“Why do you ask?” Robert seemed wary.

“It crossed my mind, Jack and his motorbike.”

Robert took his time before responding. “Jack was the wild boy on his Kawasaki, stupid and reckless. A senseless way to go and it hit the old man hard.”

“Our old man was an abusive bastard.”

Robert waved that away. “You got off lightly, you were too young. He had worn himself out by the time he got to you. Jack had the worst of it and that’s what the old man couldn’t live with, afterwards.”

They sat in silence. Samuel could feel his brother’s eyes on him.

“What’s prompted all this, asking about Jack?”

Samuel hesitated, then he said it. “It’s a strange folder on the laptop with pictures and films.”

He didn’t get any further, Robert cut him off. “Forget about that. You need to get out and live a little, make the most of your retirement.”

Carol returned to the kitchen.

“Sam here has been digging around on his laptop,” Robert told her.

She shook her head in exasperation. “Ever since retiring, he’s never off the thing.”

Robert turned to Samuel. “You need to pay more attention to your wife.”

“Chance would be a fine thing.” Carol raised her eyes to the ceiling.

“Take her on a holiday and spend some of that money you’re hoarding.” Robert laughed and Carol joined in.

“I’m going for a walk.”

Samuel stayed out until he was sure Robert had gone. A mistake to have mentioned the laptop. Nothing had changed with his brother, still dismissive, still talking down to him. Maybe he should say something to Carol, but he was put off by the way she had laughed with Robert at his expense.

After Robert’s visit, he decided to take a break from the folder and went back to planning the home repairs.

“You’re very quiet,” Carol remarked at breakfast. “Is something wrong?”

“No, why should there be anything wrong?”

“I’ve noticed you haven’t gone near the laptop in days.”

Carol had to know something about the folder. She had installed everything on the laptop.

Samuel spent more time out of the house, sitting in cafés, rehashing events from his past.

“I’m taking the laptop with me,” he said one day.

He was ready to dip back into the folder but not at home, not with Carol around.

“It’s your laptop,” she noted. “If the battery is fully charged, it should last you four hours.”

He had picked up on a definite coolness about her lately.

There was a Costa Coffee nearby, a characterless place but it had plenty of tables with space for the laptop. He sipped his coffee and looked around the room, idly, not taking much notice of anything. The difficult truth was that the folder no longer excited him. He found the entries from the 1990s and 2000s disappointing. Not as many files and longer stretches of time between them. The images still seemed unplanned but were incidental and mundane. Soulless buildings, street corners and tram stops that defined his trips to and from work. Views of the supermarket car park where he shopped every Thursday. Faces obscured because they were too close or smudged by movement. Neighbors, his doctor, the barman in his local, ancillary members of the cast of his life.

The underwater film left him with a lingering despondency. Mesmerizing at first, white legs kicking, eddies and bubbles. A holiday in 2003 when he and Carol returned to Lisbon. He had heard warnings about sea snakes, thought he saw a long dark shape while swimming and panicked, flailing in the water as he tried to get away. There was nothing in the water, no danger, only his fear.

Images from his last day at work, people he never liked, standing awkwardly with slices of cake on paper plates. He shut the screen as the head of department began a trite speech about his years of service. Everything had been so fresh and fascinating at the start, when Samuel first looked inside the folder. His school days, university, meeting Carol. There must have been a point when the urgency waned and the future became a sterile present.

He kept up a routine of going to Costa, viewing two new files each time. Arriving late one afternoon, all the tables inside were occupied. No matter, the day was warm, an Indian summer forecasted. He took his iced tea to the furthest outside table and watched the cars sweeping by before starting the laptop.

The files to do with his brother’s visit bothered him. Not so much the images, Robert grinning as he delivered some put-down and Lucy looking bored. It was the film of the conversation between Robert and Carol. They thought he had left but he waited in the hallway, ear to door.

“He’s so moody and preoccupied,” Carol said.

“That’s the way he’s always been, even as a kid,” Robert responded. “Passive but wanting more, never satisfied but never doing anything about it. Sam has always been a victim.”

He had played the film over and over. They appeared as he pictured them in his mind’s eye. The derision on Robert’s face and Carol’s half-smile. He still hadn’t spoken to her about the laptop. First, he would get to the last file and, then, begin again in reverse. Start at the end and trace his way to the beginning, see if that told him anything. When he’d completed the second cycle, he would talk to Carol.

The laptop came to life. He moved the cursor across the screen and clicked the mouse. The folder was almost empty, only one row of files. He opened a different folder, then went back to the unnamed folder. It made no difference. His body flooded with dread, what had he done? Could he have deleted the files by mistake and wiped out his precious past?

He clicked on the first file in the row. An image, today’s date. The laptop on the café table, iced tea to one side. Now, this very moment. What about the other files? What was left? He clicked on the last file, the final entry, a film reel icon.

A white screen, cloudiness, then a car moving at speed, accelerating. He looked up and saw with his own eyes what was playing on the screen. The car veering off course, coming towards him, seconds away. The driver, hands on his chest and off the wheel, face contorted. Samuel heard shrieking, sensed movement around him, tables scraping against the ground. The screen went blank.