Geek gear

I was awake during the night, thinking vaguely about today’s blog-post and, much more strenuously, about how to get back to sleep, when a twenty-year-old memory presented itself unbidden. It was, in fact, a series of memories that covered a period of five years or so.

I was running a small library supply company. Most of us had individual PCs, but we needed a proper computer system. Having interviewed a number of candidates (including some very poncy large-company operators who didn’t get out of bed for less than six figures at one end of the scale and hilarious wide boys at the other who wouldn’t have fooled a child with their patter), we opted for a small hardware company that had been established for some time in Leeds and the consultant to whom they sub-contracted systems and software development. His name was Will.

Over the next few months, I came to know Will a little. He took endless trouble to make sure he understood how our quirky manual system worked so that he could replicate it ‘virtually’, ironing out a few of the inconsistencies along the way. He always carried with him a large portable Compaq, and he carried out all of his configurations on this. He seemed to have unlimited patience. Software development was at the stage when it took a proficient techie five minutes to type in a piece of code, after which he would have to wait for half an hour or so for the machine to whirr and rumble through its set of tricks in order to produce the next stage of the programme. Like all computer guys of the period, therefore, Will spent a lot of time sitting around drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes (it was before they were banned in offices). If we were not too busy, sometimes he would talk to us about the business while he waited; occasionally, he would tell us about his personal life.

He said that he had a wife called Catherine. They didn’t always live together because she suffered from depression and, when it got really bad, she would go to stay with her mother for a spell. They had a son whose name was Ian, who went to a special school and so was away during term-time. Will gave me to understand that Ian was exceptionally gifted, which was why they were investing so much in his education.

Will was tall – taller than my husband, who is six foot three – and heavily built. He had a soft voice and a rather alternative way of dressing (not uncommon in geeks). Everyone in the office liked him. He told us that his mother called him ‘the gentle giant’.

A few months into the project, Will was suddenly taken ill. He was admitted to Leeds General Infirmary and told that he had lung cancer (in retrospect, after so many cigarettes, it was not surprising), but that the prognosis was good, because, as far as they could tell, only one lung was affected. The diseased lung was removed. My boss and I visited him at the hospital shortly afterwards. It was a boiling hot July evening. Will had lost a lot of weight; his face was pale and gaunt, but his skin seemed flawlessly clear, as if made of alabaster, and he’d grown his hair, always on the long side, to shoulder-length. He looked almost Christ-like. He was very thirsty and said he’d like some beer. The ward sister said it would be OK, so my boss went out to an off-licence to buy some cans of Guinness.

Will’s mother was his other visitor. A diminutive, bird-like woman (it seemed hardly credible that this giant of a man could be her son), she was notable for her inquisitive bright brown eyes and flushed cheeks. She said that she also had lost a lung and had managed with a single one for many years, so she was sure that Will would be OK. Will himself was enthusing about a generous present of money that he had received from a relative, which he intended to spend on walking gear for himself and Karen. It would be part of his fitness regime when he was discharged from hospital.

“Who’s Karen?” I asked.

Will looked at his mother, obviously discomfited. “My wife.”

“I thought her name was Catherine?”

“It is. She sometimes uses Karen, though. She likes it.”

I didn’t understand, but he was obviously keen to change the subject and it would have been rude to press him further. My boss returned with the beer and after half an hour or so we left. As we said goodbye, Will promised to keep in touch and to let us know as soon as he was well enough to start work again.

After I hadn’t heard from him for three months, I wrote him a letter. I had his mobile phone number (not many people had mobiles then: he was an early adopter), but I thought that writing would be less intrusive. The next day I received a telephone call from a woman who identified herself as Karen. She told me that Will had died almost four weeks previously. I told her that I was sorry. She brushed off my condolences quite brusquely – I put it down to grief and was about to apologise for troubling her when she interrupted. She said that Will had left a lot of computer equipment and some software in ‘his’ house, together with manuals belonging to clients, and that if I thought that there was anything belonging to my company I should come and claim it.

I knew that Will had lived in an old lodge house, close to a paper mill at which he had worked as the manager before he took up software design full-time. It was easy to find. Karen was waiting for me at the gate. She was a short, plump woman with long, very dark hair and a conspicuous limp. I’d say she was in her late thirties – Will had been some years older. She led me into a room in which she had set out several computers, other pieces of equipment and a large array of folders. I rummaged through the latter and found the one containing confidential information about my company. It was impossible for me to identify which of the floppy disks contained the code that Will had been working on; I knew that we’d have to write off the project. Although Karen was friendly, she seemed very weary. I left as quickly as I could.

Of course we talked about Will for a while at work, but we hadn’t known him well and his memory quickly faded. A new software engineer was brought in and a new system designed. After some years, I left the company to take up a post at a much larger organisation.

My new boss was a woman – the only woman boss I’ve ever had and, ironically, the most unreasonable and psychotic of all my bosses. She was half Italian, half what was then called Yugoslav, and I can testify that this produced a volatile set of genes! Many times I had to work late into the night, writing a report that she’d requested at 4 p.m., to be delivered the following day.

It was on such an occasion that, having worked for a couple of hours one evening and with at least another couple ahead of me, I went downstairs to make tea. Popping my head round the door to ask my husband if he would also like some, I saw that he was watching a television programme. To my amazement, the woman whose face filled the screen, now older and more drawn, was Karen’s. I stayed to listen to what she was saying.

The camera moved from the close-up shot so that the viewer could take in more of the setting. I saw that she was standing in a cemetery. The camera moved to the headstone, and I saw that it marked Will’s grave.

“I don’t feel bitter for myself,” she said, “but I wish that I had left him sooner. I tried many times, but he always persuaded me to come back to him. I blame myself that I didn’t go for good when I found that I was pregnant. When he beat me up, I was terrified for the baby.”

“The baby was born damaged?” asked the unseen commentator gently.

“Yes,” she said flatly. “He is epileptic and has learning difficulties. Severe learning difficulties.” She wasn’t crying, but her face was inexpressibly sad.

“And what about you? You say that your injuries are progressive. How does that affect you?”

“My spine is damaged. I can just about walk with a stick. I’ve been told that I’ll be in a wheelchair in five years or so.” Again, it was the matter-of-factness and the resignation in her tone that were harrowing.

The programme cut to another woman with a similar story to tell. I watched it until the end. It concluded with a list of telephone numbers and addresses to which battered wives could turn for help.

I’ve often wondered since about Catherine. Was it a name that Will concocted in order to exonerate himself, to distance himself in some way from his appalling actions by pretending that his victim wasn’t Karen? Or was it a name that she herself had used on those occasions on which she had tried to escape from him?

[For obvious reasons, I have changed the names in this account. Everything else is completely true and unembellished.]