Samuel's Folder, by Mark Keane
Photo by Annemarie Grudën on Unsplash
Samuel leafed through the user manual while Carol set up the laptop for him. A retirement gift, after forty years in the civil service. Not an end but the beginning of a new chapter, or so he’d been told at his retirement party. He was to use the laptop to explore the endless possibilities awaiting him in this new chapter. “I’ve finished loading the photos,” Carol said. The files seemed to go on forever as she scrolled down the screen. “I’ll let you organize them into different folders. Ask if you need any help.”
When she’d gone, 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 a row of folders, he came to one that didn’t have a title. It contained more files.
He placed 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 clicked on the file, and his birth certificate appeared on the screen. 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 went to the second file, dated 22/05/1958. A grainy black and white image. 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. She leaned forward with her 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.
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. As he fiddled with the Meccano pieces, he recalled 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, but hard to tell. He clicked on one with the date 13/04/1959: a photograph of 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 but Samuel recognized 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 garden of Number 32, a clothesline loaded with bed sheets. In the background, his black and white cat, Tom, sat outside the coal shed. Samuel recalled 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 track of black paw marks. There was no way to hide the evidence, and Samuel had endured hours of agony anticipating his 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, gave the thumbs up sign to the camera. Samuel felt a queer mixture of wonder and regret on seeing Jack. His easy-going brother, never offhand, always interested in what Samuel was doing. Jack had softened the worst of Robert’s bullying. Images from that summer coincided with Samuel’s earliest memories. Pictures of Jack and Robert exploring the abandoned manse at the end of the lane. Their mother with a neighbour, sitting in the living room, laughing at a shared joke. Tom stretched out on a sunlit patch of grass.
He opened a document, dated 09/06/1965: a school report. Geography, A; excellent. English, B; very good. Mathematics, B; very good. Religion, C; good. The headmaster’s summation read: A well-mannered 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 on a sloping desk 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 and 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 crazed eyes. It had been a misunderstanding, a mix-up over a broken metre stick. Samuel had done nothing wrong but Haddington wouldn’t listen and blamed him.
Samuel got up from his chair and paced the study, still seeing Haddington’s face and feeling the humiliation of that day. He went downstairs to make a cup of coffee. Carol was out, at lunch with friends. Haddington and his metre stick. When was the last time he’d thought about that monster? All that was buried in the past.
He returned to the laptop, and clicked on another film reel. Though the lighting was poor, he could make out the old range cooker in the kitchen of Number 34. A man walked on-screen, the camera trained on his legs. 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, the fear as raw and crippling as fifty years ago. He shut down the laptop. Where had these films come from? Who had put them there?
A distraction, that’s what he needed, something practical and mechanical. There were 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 downstairs 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, and the beating, exactly how Samuel remembered it.
The following day, he busied himself with paperwork relating to his pension, forms to fill, trips to the post office and 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 for his childhood. Days spent playing with Tom or exploring mysterious cupboards, nooks under the stairs and the dark basement. Immersed in the past, questioning and wondering, he fought the temptation and gave in.
The folder waited at the end of the row. 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 that summed him up as he was then. Images from 1973: schoolmates standing and sitting, not posing but looking away from the camera. Some he identified immediately. One who now ran a gift shop hadn’t changed, apart from the grey 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, humour, 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 on the film icon without checking the date. The video started with a view of a ceiling and a fluorescent light tube before cutting to a door with a window. 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. 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. It was Jack’s room in the hospital. After his accident. The room where he 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 images seemed 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 said, “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?
And 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. His past 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.
He had opened more than half the files. Better to take it slowly, and savour each recaptured moment.
Each visit to the laptop offered an element of the unexpected, not knowing exactly what was coming next.
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.
His brain tingled with anticipation, going through photos from a student party, scrutinising 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. Tom Scanlon, who threw the party, told him that John Cazale had died. They toasted the genius actor.
Then, Samuel met Carol for the first time. Her animated face on the screen brought back those first tentative weeks and months. Captivated and intimidated, he had marvelled 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 on 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.”
Her request that he attend his father’s funeral. A request he could not grant. She had begged him but he refused.
Samuel allowed himself one session on the laptop per day, and 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 hadn’t missed anything. The registry office seemed so austere. He was struck by the lack of occasion. The registrar had a birthmark covering much of her neck and cheek. He had forgotten that, as he had forgotten so many other things.
The folder contained 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.
He examined a photograph of Carol. She posed beside the statue of Pessao, hand raised 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, half-formed plans and unacted intentions.
Samuel had kept a diary for six months in 1989. Pages from the diary appeared in the folder, filled with the minutiae of his life—meals he had eaten, films he had seen and 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. There was no rush, nothing urgent required fixing. Nothing that couldn’t wait until the days got shorter.
Robert came to visit with his daughter, Lucy.
“So, how are you handling the void of retirement?” Robert asked.
“It’s not that bad.” Samuel laughed off the jibe, and turned his attention to Lucy. “I hear you’ll soon be starting a PhD. You must be excited.”
Lucy shrugged and looked away.
“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? Has something come up?”
“It just crossed my mind, Jack and his motorbike.”
Robert drummed his fingers on the table. “Jack was the wild boy on his Kawasaki, stupid and reckless. A senseless way to go. It hit the old man hard.”
“Our old man was an abusive brute.”
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. 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.”
“Really?” Robert pursed his lips. “Forget about that. You don’t know half of what goes on around you. All you see is what you want to see. Get off your arse and stop sniffing your old farts. Go out and live a little, make the most of retirement.”
Carol returned to the kitchen.
“Sam here has been digging around on his laptop,” Robert said.
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.
“Come on, Sam. Take her on a holiday. Start spending 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 left. It was 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 no, not after the way she’d laughed with Robert at his expense.
Samuel decided to take a break from the folder. He 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.
He spent more time out of the house, sitting in cafés, rehashing events from his past. After a week, he was ready to dip back into the folder. But not at home, not with Carol around. He packed the laptop in the bag he had used for work.
“I’m taking this out with me.”
“It’s your laptop,” Carol said. “If the battery is fully charged, it should last you four hours.”
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, 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. Neighbours, his doctor, the barman in his local, ancillary members of the cast of his life.
Pictures from his retirement party: 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 in his life when the urgency waned and the future became a sterile present.
He kept up a routine of going to Costa and 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 Carol and Robert in the kitchen.
“Have you said anything to Sam?”
Carol shook her head. “He’s so moody and preoccupied.”
“I tried to talk sense to him, but you know what he’s like.” Robert shrugged. “Passive but wanting more. Never satisfied but not doing anything about it. Sam has always been a victim.”
They had appeared exactly as Samuel 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. Not yet. 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 café in the background, the laptop on the table, iced tea to one side. 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 veered 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.
Mark Keane has taught for many years in universities in the UK and North America. Recent short story fiction has appeared in Granfalloon, Terror House, upstreet, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Liquid Imagination, Superpresent, Into the Void, Firewords, Night Picnic, Dog and Vile Short Fiction, the Dark Lane and What Monsters Do for Love anthologies, and Best Indie Speculative Fiction 2021. He lives in Edinburgh (Scotland).
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