Authors: Toni Jordan
Tags: #FIC000000, #FIC044000
The second cabinet is the building directory, a wide panel with dozens of flat aluminium strips bearing names and room numbers etched in black. There are plenty of empty spaces and into one of them he will have slid the strip he brought from home, with my name and room number. While he does this, he will be noisy and showy, banging the glass with the strip. When he walks out he will stomp his feet. This, too, is learned. Bystanders mistrust anyone who acts furtive. As he steps out the front door, he will turn to the left to wait at the back of the building for the precise moment to undo his work. As he turns, if our timing is correct, he will see Daniel Metcalf walking up the slope.
When Daniel reaches the door, he will hold it open for a woman coming out. She is in her early fifties but could pass for younger. She is wearing a tailored tweed suit, black pumps, black glasses suspended around her neck by a chain. The woman will smile at him and flutter her eyes. He will smile back. Thereâa connection is made. He is a stranger here, uncertain, perhaps looking down from time to time to check a map of the university that he holds in his hand. She belongs here, knows her way around. It is natural that she will speak.
âCan I help you?' she will say. She could be the Dean's secretary or an administrator, but she is not.
âI'm looking for Ella Canfield,' Daniel will say.
âOh,' Ruby will say. For this job, she is our steerer. It is her task to appear unconnected but in reality steer the mark towards me. She will give a sniff as if she knows me well but thinks me beneath her, and she might gesture Daniel along the corridor. âDr Canfield. If she's not in the lab borrowing equipment or in the field, you'll find her in her office. Second floor. Near the lift.'
Daniel Metcalf will not think twice about this advice. He will not ask for me at the window marked
, but as he walks past the directory on the wall he will see my name displayed.
My family is a team of professionals who work together like cogs in a beautiful machine. Everything hinges on the next few minutes; this is why my job is the most exciting in the world. I almost feel sorry for Daniel Metcalf.
This incursion would have been more difficult just a few years ago when universities were bustling places filled with researchers and ideas. Luckily for us, thinking is no longer valued. Universities have been transformed from crowded rooms with too many academics squeezed into a tiny space to understaffed halls with many empty or half-empty offices occupied by casual and sessional lecturers whom no one recognises by sight or even by name.
In the Zoology Department, one such empty room is 257, near the lift on the second floor. Near the lift is good: there is less chance of being seen filing in and out than if we had chosen a room at the far end of the corridor. I have already cased the building. This involves checking the exits but, more importantly, visiting the bathroom. I did the same at the Metcalf mansion on Friday, before I was shown in to see Daniel. Even when you anticipate no problems you should see if there are bars or locks on the windows of the toilets, and whether you could fit through these windows if the need arose. Jobs can curdle very quickly. It is smart to be prepared.
A desk and a chair and a peeling paint job were already there when we arrived; no one noticed the delivery woman who brought the extra boxes in at 8 am. The room is now decorated with framed newspaper clippings, a joke farewell card from Harvard, some academic citations from obscure institutions. There is a coffee mug that says âElla', two photos of an elderly couple and one of three blond children who will prove to be my mythical parents, nieces and nephew, piles of papers and copies of journals, a jar of Belgian chocolates wrapped in foil, an umbrella.
The delivery woman's overalls are folded in a box under the desk: now I am wearing tight tailored pants and a black short-sleeved top. I typically don't reveal much skin, just shape. Over the top, I wear a lab coatâperhaps not strictly accurate for an office day, but expected by a layman. Around my neck is a blue cord that should be attached to a security pass, but the pass is in the top pocket of the coat so no one can see it is laminated cardboard. This is a barely adequate solution but we had no time to obtain a real one. Anders fixed my glasses for me last night. One arm was crooked, that was the trouble. They sit easier now.
With twenty seconds to spare, I open the door of my new office and stick three aluminium name strips on the front door with double sided tape. One is etched: Dr Ella Canfield. The other names are underneath this, and are crudely written on torn strips of paper: Elvis Aaron Presley and Dr A. B. Snowman. I answer the door at the first knock.
Daniel gestures to the signs on the door. âYou share your office with illustrious company,' he says.
I frown, and look up and down the corridor to make sure it's empty. Then I grab the strips with the fake names and roll them into a ball. âMy colleagues, next door. They're marsupial researchers. My project is a source of constant amusement to them. Apparently they don't think much of my chances.'
He stands in front of the desk and I close the door then lean with my back against it. âLook, Daniel. Would you mind if we went somewhere else? If Larry, Curly and Moe from next door find out about this I'll never hear the end of it.'
âKnock on their door and invite them in,' he says. âI'm sure you could convince them there really are live Tasmanian tigers right here in Victoria. Tell them about the ox. And the watermelon. You're very persuasive.' He moves toward the door and stops only a metre away, but I stay put.
âI've tried. They won't listen.'
âShow them your documents.'
âI've gone through everything. There are records from the Wilsons Promontory Management Committee dated 1908, where they discussed the benefits of catching tigers in Tasmania and releasing them in the park for hunting. Evidence of all the other imported animals that were released in odd spots in the nineteenth century by the Acclimatisation Society. It's absolutely plausible that they were once in the park, and when you add the sightings, it becomes possible. I've explained my whole theory to them.'
âSounds convincing to me. What did they say?
âThey asked if I would help them with a grant application to catch the tooth fairy.'
âJeez. Scientists,' he says and shakes his head. âI wouldn't want anything to do with that fairy. No head for business at allâcash flow all in the wrong direction and the tooth inventory always increasing.'
âI'll let them know.'
âMind you, she's not alone. There're poorly run businesses everywhere. Look at the Easter bunnyâruns that business like a charity. One hundred per cent market share, certainly, but where's the revenue? They'll all need government bail-outs eventually. Worldwide markets, you see. Too big to fail.'
He says this in a flirty way, and that's when I know I've got him. I am slightly disappointed. I had expected more of a challenge, considering the stupidity of this whole idea and the number of women someone like him must attract. It turns out he's as pathetic as the rest of them. I twist a curl of hair around my finger and smile, suddenly coy. âSo I should sell my shares in Santa?'
âWell, the margins in the gift business are rubbish anyway and I hear he's been paying the reindeer a Christmas bonus for years now. As for their super: let's just say I wouldn't mind being an elf on the verge of retirement.'
âI'm so glad you're here to tell me these things. I never would have figured it out without you.'
âI'm from a long line of businessmen. It's in the blood. Perhaps I should knock next door and give your colleagues some advice.'
âNot a chance,' I say, and I raise my arms as though I'm barring the door. âYou're all mine. With any luck they've never heard of your trust. The last thing I need is more competition.' I blush a little, though by this stage it's probably unnecessary.
âElla,' he says. âCompetition should be the least of your worries.'
I take off my lab coat and bundle him out. I know the hall is empty, otherwise I would have heard Sam, a spruced-up second wall man in his cleaner's uniform, speaking loudly on his mobile right outside my door. At the end of the corridor is the lift. As the doors open, an older lady scientist exits: late sixties, white close-cropped hair, lab coat, small jade earrings. I hold the doors for her, then we walk inside. The lift doors close. And all at once I begin to feel nervous.
This feeling is not the normal nerves that I know and love, the sudden rush of butterflies, the adrenaline that brings out my best performance. As the lift begins to move, a nauseated feeling that might be dread overtakes me. I stand, arms at my side, legs stiff, eyes toward the door. For a moment I feel I'm going to faint.
I've been in lifts before, obviously. I have travelled in this very lift several times since Friday lunchtime but now I am conscious of what an enclosed space it is, how isolated from the rest of the world. A small steel bubble.
The denim of Daniel's jeans has fine ridges like corduroy that make sonic waves in the atmosphere. The satchel, carried across his body, is a smooth brown leather that echoes good sense and calm. The face is tanned; his skin looks slightly rough even under the stubble. He leans one shoulder against the wall of the lift, hands behind his back, eyes to the ceiling. I close my eyes. I should have eaten breakfast, I think, and then I remember that I did. Perhaps I shouldn't have. I swallow. I think of the old lady scientist who left the lift as we entered. She had an unfriendly look in her eye. Suspicious. That might be me in forty years, still sneaking around, pulling the same stings. My legs feel wobbly underneath me. There are perhaps two hundred floors to go.
Then the door opens again and I feel the breeze against my face and all is well. I've had some strange reaction to the air in the lift, lack of oxygen, or too much, or something. I feel myself again; or at least the self that I am today. In fact now that the feeling has passed I think it was a good thing, that creeping dread. It's an extra awareness. A sixth sense, warning me to be on my toes. Although this job seems in the bag I will be careful. Everything will be all right.
Down the corridor I stop in front of the glass display case as though something has unexpectedly caught my eye. âWell,' I say, after a moment. âThey finally put them up.'
Daniel slouches so that he is at eye level with me. âPosters with scientific papers on them. Well well. The biologist as rock star. More people would notice if they were stuck on poles in the city.'
âHere,' I say, and I tap my finger on the glass right above my name, so he can't miss it. âThey finally displayed them. My papers.'
âThat doesn't usually happen?'
I straighten and shrug. âA university department is just like a family. I was popular enough at the beginning but now I'm the black sheep, I guess. But I probably shouldn't be telling you that.'
âIt's a lot of money. I'm sure you want the grant to be awarded to someoneâ¦Well.' I pause. I am shy here, diffident. I am saying something that will count against me but I can't in all good conscience not mention it. This will speak to my honesty, my integrity. I look bashful. âSomeone more establishment than me.'
âNot necessarily,' he says. âSometimes I become interested in unexpected things. Sometimes I think I'm the only one who notices.'
I hold the main doors open for him; he nods and allows himself to be ushered out. We are nearly out of doorway when I hear a voice behind me, sharp and close.
âExcuse me. Just one moment.'
I turn. It's the elderly lady scientist, the one with the jade earrings I saw on the second floor. She must have followed us down in the lift. She does not look friendly. I can almost hear her say: Who are you? What are you doing in the building? I'm calling security, right now. This could be the end of everything. From the corner of my eye I see Ruby in a doorway to the right; she is too far away to intervene without breaking into a jog, which would look strange. I need to make a judgment, right now, from the look on the woman's face. I can excuse myself to Daniel and hope he keeps walking. Anders would keep an eye on him, but it is risky, disruptive.
âYes?' I say.
âI think you might have dropped this. Outside the lift.' She puts out her hand and in her palm is the ball of paper, the screwed-up name plates of Elvis Presley and Dr Snowman. Her lips are pursed, her eyes are narrowed. She knows that no one would miss a ball of paper. She is making a point about littering, about inappropriate behaviour in the departmental corridors. She is only just restraining herself from folding her arms and tapping one foot.
âThanks.' I put the ball of paper in my coat pocket.
After she leaves Daniel says, âNot a friend of yours?'
âI told you. I'm not the most popular person here.'
âI find that hard to believe.' He flashes me a smile that I'm sure is his most charming.
It's all I can do to not roll my eyes; this is almost too easy. I smile. âWould I lie to you?'
Outside the air is still, the grounds are perfect and there is a peace that comes with being in the sun where no one is rushing. This campus has a crack team of gardeners that make it perpetually photo-ready, unlike our garden at home which is well on the way to being reclaimed by the apple trees. We are walking to the student cafe because I tell Daniel that there I won't run into any of my colleagues and I don't want to share him. This is perhaps as overtly flirtatious as I want to get on this job and maybe it's too far, but he only smiles and admires the gargoyles.
âBut you were at Harvard, didn't you say?' he says. âThere must have been some wonderful buildings there.'
âOh yes. Beautiful old buildings.'
âWhat exactly was your research project? For your post-doc?'