Icarus, a new short story by Rachel Donohue
A new graduate’s strange summer as a temp casts a shadow over her entry into the adult world
Fitzwilliam Square from the east side. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
One summer, a long time ago now, I worked as a temporary secretary in a Georgian townhouse on Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin. There were only three of us in this large, red-brick building which overlooked a gated park in the south of the city.
I answered the advert for the job out of boredom. I had just finished university and needed time, and money, while I contemplated my future. It was a sort of pause in a way, though a reasonably long one, as I ended up working there for almost three months, never once understanding what is was we did there, or why. It didn’t seem to matter much then, though I think differently about that now.
That first morning I was welcomed at the door by Sylvia. She informed me she was the “very senior” Personal Assistant. She had curly, pale brown hair and wore no obvious make-up, except red lipstick and her dress was black but faded looking, as if it had been dry-cleaned too often. Her pale, round blue eyes were watery, she possibly had allergies, and she seemed old to me though she was probably only in her thirties. She looked me up and down for a brief moment, not unkindly, but more with a sense of exhaustion, as if she had met people like me before. When she took my jacket I noticed her look at the label, briefly, before hanging it on the back of the door.
There would be a tea break at 10.30 she said, but not with these cups, they were for meetings. She then put the cup back in the drawer and closed it. She smiled at me as she did this, as if we might be friends.
In the hallway the ceiling was high and the walls were a bright white. A full-sized black marble sculpture of a Roman nymph, shading its eyes, stood at the end of the staircase. The floor was white too, large tiles, polished and shiny, it was blinding in the morning sun. A grand staircase led up to the second floor which looked dark, shady in comparison. I was to sit opposite Sylvia in a large room at the front of the house. My desk was significantly smaller than hers and had a computer, a telephone and some post it notes that were still covered in plastic, all laid out neatly. As I sat down, Sylvia opened a steel filing cabinet behind me and took out a small, pink, china cup. There would be a tea break at 10.30 she said, but not with these cups, they were for meetings. She then put the cup back in the drawer and closed it. She smiled at me as she did this, as if we might be friends.
David was our boss, he had black hair, was quite tanned and he smelled of peppermint. I came to understand that he turned up only one day a week, usually late in the afternoon for meetings that would apparently run into the night. The rest of the time he was networking, Sylvia explained. He wore pinstriped navy or black suits, always with a white shirt and a grey or yellow tie, never any other colour. He had very blue eyes and at first almost never looked me in the eye, if we passed in the hall he’d give me a vaguely quizzical expression as if trying to place me, but the mental effort required was too much. He seemed strangely nervous and dismissive at the same time. There was a sense of haste and evasion to our encounters. He always ran up the stairs, skipping steps as he went, as though he feared he was being chased. I guessed he might have been around Sylvia’s age at the most. In one of our conversations, that first week, she warned me that David didn’t do small talk and required 100% loyalty from his team. I said he was quite good looking. She raised her eyebrows over her reading glasses when I said this and we didn’t speak again for another hour.
My job was pretty minor when it came to responsibility. I’d answer a few phone calls, do some photocopying, work the franking machine and deliver the post every evening at 5pm to the post-box on the corner of the Square. If the courier called it was an event, I got to open the door and sign something. One of them had dreadlocks and we used to flirt in a pointless enough fashion. The afternoons felt endless. I played Solitaire on the computer and read long emails with jokes in them from friends. Sometimes the same joke email would arrive several times, from different people. They were rarely funny. And I would then spend time scrolling through the lists of people who had forwarded them on, occasionally recognising names from other parts of my life. Dublin was small.
I went to the bathroom often, just to get up from the desk and escape the ticking of the clock over Sylvia’s head. It was in the basement, next to the kitchen. It had no window, and a loud fan whirred over my head when I opened the door. The light was flattering and I would stare at myself in the mirror, sometimes redoing my makeup, but mainly just passing a few minutes. It felt different from college, this life. The restriction of a desk was more like school and I wondered which, in fact, was the accurate version of real life. I had assumed the rigidity and boredom of school was the anomaly. Occasionally, I thought about the future, about what was next for me. But not that often, because it was summer and I assumed things would work themselves out.
One of my other, few, duties was to make tea for the Tuesday afternoon meeting David held in the house. With sweaty palms I’d carry the tray from the basement kitchen up two flights of narrow stairs, with Sylvia at my back warning me not to deliver tea-filled saucers or worse. Once I forgot to bring biscuits, the kind that are individually wrapped and are left in baskets in waiting rooms. She talked about this error to me for days, how it had looked to the visitors and how David had felt about it - upset, apparently.
In his office it was always the same three white haired men, in the same three chairs, the shades on the window lowered because of the evening sun, with David saying nothing as I entered but politely moving papers out of the way and staring at his hands as I leaned over the table. Once I was sure he was sweating, there was a glow to his skin and he smelled less of peppermint, when he did look up at me he seemed desperate almost, like there was a craving in him to say something, but he could not find the words. The other men were also silent, sometimes they nodded and one of them winked at me every now and then. Once, I waited outside the closed door just to see if they spoke after I left, but there was no sound, apart from the cups and saucers being laid on the desk. Sylvia said these men had been close associates of David’s father and were to be treated with the utmost decorum and respect, so that’s what we did.
I wasn’t sure what David’s work involved, what the business even was. The phone barely rang downstairs and the post when it arrived was directed to an array of different companies, all with David named as Managing Director. I would leave these letters in different trays on a table at the other side of the room. The next day the trays would be empty. When I got up the courage to ask Sylvia what David actually did, she said he was “an entrepreneur”. She left the term just hanging there and watched me, arms folded like it was a challenge, a riddle I had to work out. Sylvia meanwhile seemed to be endlessly busy and working intently. She would frown at her computer screen for hours, then type at speed before slowing suddenly, and looking puzzled. There was a strange rhythm to it. I envied her lack of restless energy, then after a while I pitied her.
When Sylvia went out for lunch, something that didn’t happen very often, I’d wander the house with the careful tread you’d reserve for visits to art galleries or museums. It was four floors of renovated perfection and plush red carpets with every room empty of inhabitants, except the unpleasant looking men in the modern art that peered down at you from high on the 12-foot walls. It felt pampered and preened, dressed up for something that never happened. Soft velvet couches under the windows that overlooked the Square, gilt edged mirrors on the walls and the odd chandelier. There were large mahogany desks, with leather swivel chairs and bookshelves in some of the rooms but they had no books on them, only photos of David shaking hands with other men in suits.
The room at the top of the stairs on the first floor was locked. Sylvia had a key for it, she kept it in the drawer of her desk. Sometimes she would take it out and leave it on her desk. I used to watch her closely when she did this. She would trace her fingers over it, then pick it up, look at it for a second and then put it back in the drawer. I only knew it was the key to this room because once David had asked for it and she had retrieved it for him with an air of suitable reverence.
One Friday evening as we were leaving and she was punching in the alarm code near the front door, Sylvia turned to me and said the house was supposed to be haunted. She laughed as she said this but I remember both of us looking up the stairs where there were shadows and emptiness. The door to the mystery room shut tight. Outside the evening sun was warm, people were sitting on the steps of the other houses around us, smoking and chatting. Sylvia locked the door and paused for a second and her eyes had that wet look again. I couldn’t think of anything to say about ghosts. I felt she possibly wanted to ask me to go for a drink but she didn’t. I probably wouldn’t have gone anyway.
I did go drinking though, quite a lot. In the warm evenings, I’d escape the hushed atmosphere of the Fitzwilliam Square house to sit on wooden benches in beer gardens with friends who were starting graduate programmes in large companies. We had our own decent paycheques for the first time and the weeks were carved up by dinners, cocktail hours and late-night shopping. We talked about getting out and getting away, finding ourselves. Travelling. We needed time out, even before we began. Office life was not all it had been cracked up to be and the careers we had studied hard for felt inauthentic, constricting now that they were taking shape. We saw it as a sign of our liberation that we either took jobs beneath our IQ scores or got great jobs and threw them over to go elsewhere and live simple lives on a beach or trekking through a tropical forest. Time seemed elastic, flexible, something that would bend to your will. We were ruled by optimism.
We smoked a lot, people were in love, and then they weren’t. It didn’t seem to matter much, no one’s life fell apart. I don’t remember feeling anxious but I expect it was there, buried underneath the arch, earnest banter. A fear that a new and unfamiliar race to something was beginning and you weren’t quite ready so you drank and talked more and let yourself be admired. It would be late before you noticed it was dark, the evening gone.
I thought a lot about why David hadn’t hired a better-looking personal assistant than Sylvia. I’m not proud of this but I spent time contemplating this question while watching her. She seemed a kind of 1950s wife or mother, decorous, agreeable, never asking too many questions, fretting over the stress he was under, and collecting his dry cleaning. This was one of the few menial tasks she never asked me to do. Sometimes when she spoke of him, telling me somewhere he was going, or someone important he was going to meet, she would sound excited, proud, her words coming out in a rush. As if his achievements had something to do with her. Maybe they did. He was the boy-king, anointed.
She was nervous around him, though. The few times I watched them together, close up, she fumbled her words as if she was running out of breath, or dropped her pen. He, meanwhile, looked like he was staring at something over her shoulder, bored, dismayed even and occasionally I would catch him looking at me while she talked. I didn’t meet his gaze, though I could feel it on me. I wonder about this sometimes. It was possibly out of an odd loyalty to Sylvia – maybe one day David was going to realise she was the jewel lying there unnoticed, but I doubted it. I felt sorry for her then.
A week or so later, in the middle of the summer, Sylvia announced that we would be planning a party. It was an annual thing with business associates and politicians invited. I tried to look excited. She had a fraying file of Food & Wine magazines that she took out of the press and read while eating a drab sandwich, ticking wine reviews and then ringing suppliers and caterers. Then came the guest list, endless cross checking of names and phone calls to the printers about the width of the invite. I was dispatched to a shop to buy colour coded stickers and we had to lay out a table plan on the floor and decide who would sit where. When it came to follow up calls as to who was attending, I heard her discreetly checking who so and so would be bringing, making sure we didn’t put the wife’s name down when it was in fact a female associate that would be coming this time. For all her buttoned-up nature, I knew this didn’t bother her. Men were men, it was understood. We were there only to smooth the path.
I possibly found my voice that summer, the one prescribed for existing, for getting by in offices and other anonymous settings. The one that cuts people, but pretends it’s just a game
She showed me some pictures from the party the year before. In one of them, David was standing on a terrace with fireworks in the background, a young woman beside him in a red dress holding a champagne glass. I asked who she was, but Sylvia acted like she hadn’t heard me and stayed busy attaching stickers to the table plan. David’s date for the party this year was a mystery. I could see Sylvia tentatively circling the blank space beside his name for days. One lunchtime she went out shopping, arriving back in the office with a large bag from Brown Thomas. Every now and then I noticed her opening it, and peering in. I figured she had bought a dress. I asked her over tea a few mornings later if she was looking forward to the party. She flushed and said David had asked her but she would “not be able to make it”. These were her exact words, formal really. She looked away, out the window then. I said as the catering staff would be there, probably neither of us were needed. She turned to me and gave me a dirty look.
I possibly found my voice that summer, the one prescribed for existing, for getting by in offices and other anonymous settings. The one that cuts people, but pretends it’s just a game. Maybe it was a reaction to the vacancy and silence of the house, or the petty and mindless work we seemed to be doing. I don’t really know, but it’s never left me. I regret that.
About a week or so before the party, in the middle of August, some unusual calls and letters began to arrive in the office. The letters were handwritten and addressed to David, not MD David, just plain, first name David. The envelopes were grubby and crumpled looking. Sylvia peered at the first one with distaste before reluctantly placing it in the in-tray. The next day another arrived. The same black scrawl on the envelope, then another. David came into the office more frequently that week, not even bothering to come in and say his awkward hello, just going straight to his office upstairs. The three wise men instead of visiting him only on Tuesday afternoons, came that Wednesday, Thursday and Friday as well. The phone rang more often too and Sylvia said if she wasn’t there to answer it I was to let it go to voicemail. It seemed like a demotion and for an afternoon I sulked and didn’t make her any tea when I went to the kitchen.
But when Sylvia announced she would be working late for the third evening in a row, and a Friday night at that, I got up the courage to ask her if anything was wrong and if she needed any help. David had an urgent conference call with New York at midnight was all she offered. He’d also changed the seating plans for his party for the third time that week, some people had cancelled. She would be “up to her eyes rearranging things”. She put her hands on her hips and rolled her eyes, like he was an exasperating child. I offered to stay late and give her a hand and reluctantly she agreed, telling me to go to a local takeaway first and bring back food. It would be a late one.
We sat on the floor re-arranging names, the light slowly fading outside. It felt like a strange board game, with no winner. Every now and then the phone would ring. She jumped slightly every time, replying to whoever was on the line that David was unavailable. Then taking their name down in her notebook. After a while she stopped answering and it just rang out. She became more distracted as the evening went on, scratching out the wrong names, then having to check back in her files. It seemed to me that at least half the party had cancelled, not just the few people as she initially claimed. I eventually asked her if they had given a reason. She looked at me suspiciously then, like I was fishing for highly classified information – the great law of discretion disobeyed. But it seemed a reasonable question to me. One of the three wise men came into our office and asked if coffee could be brought up. I was dispatched to the basement with the good china cups.
The light switch in the kitchen was on a sensor and it cut out twice as I waited for the kettle to boil. I unlocked the back door and had a quick smoke in the yard, something I would never have dared do in the daylight but I figured I was demonstrating my commitment by working late so was entitled to smoke. Sitting on the steps in the warm night air I heard voices raised in his office two floors above. The house loomed above my head. It looked less grand from this angle, shabbier, bunched up, narrow. As I stubbed out my cigarette, I noticed David came to the window and leaned against it, looking out into the darkening evening. His suit jacket was off. A black cat wandered into the light cast from the kitchen door and stared at me for a minute before casually retreating back into the shadows behind the bins.
Sylvia was anxious when I returned, I had taken ages. She took the tray from me in the hallway and with notebook under her arm marched upstairs. I went back to the office below and the dwindling guest list, expecting Sylvia to return any minute. The phone rang again and I let it go to voicemail. The fax machine in the corner of the room started to come to life then. I went to check what was coming through but the pages were blank, someone on the other end must have put the document in the wrong way. I looked out the front window. The street was empty now, abandoned looking, most of the other houses, also offices, were closed up and dark. The street lights were orange and it gave the trees in the park opposite a sickly and anxious glow.
Sylvia emerged with her tray close to 11pm. She seemed surprised to see me still there, apologetic almost. She told me she would clean up and that I should go. She looked tired. As I was putting on my jacket, she handed me a cheque. There was a problem with the payroll and I was to get this month’s payment early. I put it in my pocket. She leaned on the edge of her desk, staring at her shoes and said the party was cancelled. I thought perhaps I had heard her wrong but then she moved suddenly, as if a brittle kind of energy had returned to her, and kneeling on the floor she began tearing up all the sheets, the seating plans and the lists of names with colour coded stickers. She gathered up the ripped pages and dumped them in the bin, in a brutal, kind of violent way.
She took the tray then from her desk and swiftly left the room, heading for the backstairs to the basement. After a few seconds I followed her to the kitchen but when I got there it was already empty, light off and the door to the bathroom was shut. I thought I heard her sobbing but it could have been the noise from the fan. I went back to the hallway and got my coat. I didn’t know what else to do. As I was putting it on I turned to look up the stairs. David was standing at the top. He didn’t say anything, just gazed down at me, his shirtsleeves rolled up, hands in his pockets. He reminded me of a man in a painting, not the modern ones that hung in the house, but something medieval and dark, indecipherable. All meaning and context to his expression lost in time. He turned away then and I left.
I can’t remember if I thought about work over the weekend that followed. I was living in a house by the canal and people tended to just call over and stay. We were always celebrating, a twenty-first birthday or a going away party. Goodwill was a sort of ritual in itself, a habit we had formed. I expect that’s what happened that weekend and I banished any thoughts of the silent, thin house. The summer was nearly over anyway, friends were dispersing.
I arrived at Fitzwilliam Square just before 9am on Monday. The usual time. I didn’t have a set of keys so I rang the bell as normal. Sylvia was always in early but no one answered. I sat on the steps. It was a grey morning and it started to rain lightly. I pulled my coat around me and watched the people as they walked past. The last-minuters like me, their heads down, collars up, umbrellas blocking their view, the odd person on a phone, someone in the wrong shoes for a wet day, slipping on the uneven pavement. There was something random and improvised about all of us, vacant and distracted beings on our way to the office.
For a while I thought Sylvia would turn up, that she was taking her time after the extra hours the previous week and would walk around the corner any minute and tell me the party was still on. But she didn’t. The rain got heavier and it felt more like autumn than summer. The Square emptied of people, taxis slowed in front of the steps where I sat and then moved on. I stood up and sheltered under the narrow ledge over the door. I rang the bell again, many times but it never opened. I felt strangely abandoned and eventually left.
I know for a few days after I called the office line, several times a day, expecting her to answer. I checked the papers too but there was no news of them. They had vanished, swallowed up in the grandeur and silence of the house. I talked about it for a while to friends, the oddness of it, but no one was really interested and they told me it hadn’t been a proper job anyway. I even worried for a while that I might be implicated in something - that their bodies were rotting in the mystery, locked room, their pockets stuffed with money. I was the last witness. I dreamt about them too. I was at the party but the terrace was empty, no other guests in sight. I was the only one watching the fireworks.
A vacancy seeped out of the gilded walls and into my soul, turning all that might have been gold into something other. By stealth, a nothingness opened up and I replaced belief with something else.
But September came and I got a new job. My life drifted on. There were other offices and people.
It’s only now, many years later, when things have turned out as they did, that I wonder if you can be infected with a fatal sense of detachment. And if this is possible, I believe it entered me that summer in the silent, extended pause between who I was and who I became. A vacancy seeped out of the gilded walls and into my soul, turning all that might have been gold into something other. By stealth, a nothingness opened up and I replaced belief with something else. I saw absence and lies more clearly after and I felt different about people and things. They seemed only half real to me, all surface and I warded them off with disdain and absent, empty words. I took almost no-one seriously, least of all myself. There are indeed occasions when I fear I may have led an existence as unoccupied and barely there as that silent, temporary house. An uninvited guest at a party that failed to take place.
But then I have a tendency to look for excuses and convenient ways to forgive myself, and most surely nothing is as it seems when you look back. You can search for meaning and quite simply never find it. There are only so many great lessons to be learned. Besides summers, like people, vanish, their particular beat unique and impossible to ever catch again.
Rachel Donohue’s debut novel The Temple House Vanishing (Corvus) is out now.