It didn’t take long for the tragic and mysterious death of Irena Spargo to migrate from the front pages to the company of the mundane columns which filled the interiors of the newspapers. A week later, with no new developments to report, the story soon fell out of the public mind and, for the most part, those involved fell back into their usual routines.
That day, as every day, while it was still dark, the streets were inundated with a river people and vehicles on their way to and from work and school. Not long after, the sky in orange twilight, the old air-raid sirens wailed out across the city to warn of the impending danger from the skies – though not of the kind they were originally intended for. Fifteen minutes later the sun appeared on the horizon and smother its deadly rays across a city that was once again quiet.
That day, as every day, a lone man with a satchel made his way along Queen Victoria Road toward the red-bricked Armstrong building. Travelling in the daytime wasn’t recommended, but his inconvenient work hours left him little choice. With a wide-brimmed hat, leather gloves and a set of darkened sun-goggles, only parts of his face were visible; none of his body was exposed to direct sunlight.
Moments later, the young man was pacing through the corridors, pulling off various items of outdoor clothing and adding them to ever growing and debilitating bundles tucked under his arms. Underneath he was wearing a simple shirt and tie with a black waistcoat. The hat had left his auburn hair looking slightly bedraggled and, unlike most staff in the university, he was clean shaven.
He squeezed into his office. It was a small room – almost small enough to be a broom cupboard – with just enough space to fit the two old desks and chairs facing opposite walls. Mercifully, there was a large window opposite the door, the curtains open to admit natural sunlight thanks to a new UV blocking film being introduced by the university. One of the desks was occupied by a young woman, quietly tapping away on a typewriter.
“Good afternoon,” he yelped as his overcoat, hat and various other items avalanched onto the floor. “Oh, good afternoon, Michael.” she muttered, distracted, without looking away from the typewriter. He kicked the clothing under his desk.
With that, Michael Jones went to work. The job he had couldn’t be called exciting; he had recently left an apprenticeship as a laboratory technician and, no other employment in the city being available, had negotiated his way into a temporary job stocktaking for the university laboratories. It was boring at times, he couldn’t deny it; the job was heavy on paperwork and afforded precious little social interaction with the other staff, who always had their own business to be getting on with. Nevertheless, he was paid well enough for an afternoon a weekday and even got his own office, though it felt significantly more cramped now he had to share it with somebody else.
Michael paused for a moment; the typing had stopped.
“Emily, are you daydreaming again?”
Behind him he heard the screech of a chair leg, “Daydreaming? No, no, I was just resting my fingertips,” she said off-hand. The typing resumed.
He turned around, “We both know that’s not the case. I’m sure you have plenty of typing deadlines and you’ve got to keep your eye on the ball. I won’t always be here to spur you on,” he said sincerely.
The typing stopped again and she turned her head, “I’ve got to keep my eye on the ball? What about you?”
“Me?” he returned with incredulity. Had he forgotten something?
Smiling, she picked something out of her drawer and dropped it on his desk; it was a small pile of envelopes, “I was wondering when you were going to pick up your post. You never did.”
Michael scratched the back of his head as he picked through the letters, “Yes, thank you for that. I suppose I forgot…”
“I won’t always be here to spur you on,” she smiled, turning back to her typing.
Before he could begin belatedly reading his post, there was a knock and Professor Ashcroft poked his head around the door. Neither of them knew the professor very well. “Is Mister Michael Jones in here?”
Ashcroft resolved not to squeeze into the already cramped room, “Do you have a moment? I wanted to see you earlier. I sent you a memo but I don’t think it got through.”
Michael peered down into the envelope he had just opened, then brushed it to one side, “Err, no, it mustn’t have got through. What did you want to see me about Professor…?” He trailed off, mentally searching for the name.
“Professor Ashcroft” he finished, holding out a hand in greeting, “I’m surprised you don’t know of me already. From my work in nuclear physics? And Maxwell’s theory of relativity?”
Shaking the hand, Michael shrugged awkwardly, “I can’t say I have; that’s not really my area.”
“Ah yes, that’s just what I wanted to talk to you about. Could we speak in private for a moment?” The question was directed toward Emily, who had been idly scribbling on a piece of paper whilst the conversation was going on. Michael glanced in Emily’s direction, “Would you mind if we stepped outside instead?”
“Very well,” the professor grumbled, “we’ll talk in my office.”
On their way down the corridor, Ashcroft began to explain, “My colleague, Professor Hobbes, has recently retired, leaving his work in matter transmission to me to continue.”
“Matter transmission… I think I read about that in the papers. Sending an object from one location to the other, instantaneously?”
“Yes, I suppose it’s more in your area, lad,” muttered Ashcroft.
“Do you mind me asking why he left it to you?”
The professor waved the question away, “That’s not important. What you need to know is that I’m planning an experiment which could reveal matter transmission to be possible in the modern age.”
They entered his office. Ashcroft referred Michael to a chair, before sitting behind his desk like an interviewer. Michael sat back, confused, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought they concluded it was impossible with today’s technologies. Even an apple would…”
“Yes, yes, we’ve fixed all that,” Ashcroft interrupted, in the same off-hand manner he might have used to describe the time of day. Michael raised an eyebrow, even more confused, “I never knew about that. Why are you telling me this?”
Ashcroft leaned forward and clasped his hands together, “Because I’d like to make you a proposition.”
“A proposition? What do you mean?” Michael asked, though he suspected he already knew the answer.
“I need help to make this project a reality. My assistant, Doctor Watson, is already well-read in Hobbes’s research. All I need is someone to work out the details, help with budgeting, getting parts, that kind of thing. Believe it or not, you’re the best qualified person available at such short notice.”
“You mean… you’re offering me a job?”
“Of a sort, yes. I’ve already made arrangements to terminate your current employment – if you accept, that is.”
Full time employment? Without having to move somewhere else? Michael knew he would be foolish to pass up the opportunity; the government encouraged work in agriculture and industry; the only secure employment in academia was in state institutions like Newcastle University, and those were few and far between. He smiled, “When do I start?”
* * *
It was half an hour before Michael returned to his office.
“What was all that about, then?” asked Emily, rapidly typing as she spoke.
Michael sat down and started to read one of his letters, informing him that Professor Ashcroft would please like to see him at one o’clock about a possible employment opportunity, “I think I may have just got a new job.”
She stopped typing and turned around, “Where?”
“Here. With Professor Ashcroft. Some sort of matter transmission experiment, or something along those lines, anyway.”
Emily smiled, “Does that mean I can have the office to myself, now?”
He turned to face her; it could be awkward having a face-to-face conversation in such a confined environment, “What? No! This is my office and I’m staying here,” he said playfully. Noticing the clock on the wall was lob-sided – deceptively displaying quarter to four instead of twenty to three – he went to adjust it, “Nevertheless, I’ll probably be spending most of the day in a small workshop with that Professor Ashcroft and another man called Doctor Watson.”
“He doesn’t have a friend in the detective business, does he?”
He looked at her curiously, “Where did you get that idea…”
She giggled, “Doctor Watson? In the Sherlock Holmes stories?”
He rolled his eyes, “I’m sure he’d forgive me for neglecting to point that out.” Looking down at the stacks of neatly typed documentation, copied up from the reams of writing Emily received each day, Michael noticed something interleaved between the pages, “What’s this?”
He pulled out a piece of paper bearing a detailed pencil drawing of a dragon, soaring high above a fantastical landscape, “This is actually rather good.”
She snatched it out of his hand and stuffed it into her desk drawer with the others, “You know, you should ask before going through other people’s things.”
Michael put his hands in the air in apology, “I’m sorry. But I mean it. Those sketches are very imaginative; you should become an illustrator or something, instead of wasting away your time as a typist.”
Instead of responding, she just slumped back in her seat and sighed, “I don’t know. Maybe I will some day; I’d like to, if I could, but things get in the way. I just hope I don’t wake up one day and realise I’m 60 and I’ve done nothing, seen nothing; just spent the whole time in here, typing my life away.”
“That’s a bit harsh. I mean it’s not like you’re pressed for time.”
She wiped her nose, “I suppose. What about you?”
“What about me?”
“You were an apprentice laboratory technician, weren’t you? And now you’re doing paperwork all day. You could go to one of the big institutes in Glasgow or Manchester or Aberdeen and they’d snap you up right away. Why stay here?”
His mood became more sombre, “Reasons… it’s complicated,” he muttered passively. Emily wondered whether she should say something, but Michael spoke first, “Perhaps we should get back to work. There are only so many hours in the day.”
With that, he sat back down and the small office returned to its ambience of quiet tapping.