It Was All a Great Misunderstanding
At ten in the morning on Wednesday the 23rd of December I walked into Harvard’s medical library expecting to be arrested at any moment.
I remember it vividly. For hours the night before I had rehearsed ‘innocent looks’ in front of a mirror while my dog, Gertrude, looked on with pity.
It was an impressive performance. If they handed out awards for the most perfect impersonation of a man who had NOT two days earlier stolen the skull of Phineas Gage from a museum in the same building, then my portrayal was an act for the ages.
The foyer was empty, tragically. I reached the middle of the atrium, paused and looked around in a casual sort of way. My heart was hammering treacherously in my chest, so loudly it might have echoed off the dull beige walls.
To my relief, a swarm of fanatically violent policemen did not, in this moment, smash their way through the skylight above in a rain of shattered glass and bullets. I stared upwards into the silent atrium, waiting for a dozen gendarmes to descend like corpulent beetles on a string, but I waited in vain.
Then I looked over at the Circulation Desk. Nobody burst from behind it brandishing guns and rocket launchers. Everything was stillness and tranquility. Were it not for the fact that I was in a large concrete building in the middle of winter then crickets would certainly be chirping. Believe me, this was precisely the sort of situation for which crickets practically live.
I turned around slowly, prepared to sink to my knees with my hands on my head, which is a gesture that has been known to sometimes make American police slightly less inclined to shoot people. It was all very eerie, really. The security guard over by the entrance stared at his crossword and muttered curse words in Estonian. I could hear a distant vacuum cleaner and someone coughing in an office somewhere. Otherwise, apart from my moment of panic, not a lot seemed to be going on in the Countway Library of Medicine this morning.
Ha, I thought to myself after a long pause. I am totally going to get away with this.
I had taken only two steps in the direction of the elevator when I realized that a battalion of cops was probably hiding outside my office, armed to the tusks with clubs and pistols, ready to riddle me with justice the moment I rounded the corner.
I paused again to reconsider. Where should I go? Back through the glass doors outside? I don\’t want to sound paranoid but the idea didn\’t seem sound somehow. I hadn’t noticed any snipers on the roof but boy I’d feel silly if I was shot.
Recall that on Monday I had walked off with one of Harvard’s most prized possessions. On Tuesday – I don’t remember what I did on Tuesday; I think I was in meetings around the campus all day and somehow managed to avoid the library altogether. I couldn’t postone it any longer, however; I had to return to scene of the crime.
My biggest problem was that in the course of planning the heist I had, by my count, mentioned it to approximately thirty-seven librarians. I’d taken the precaution of swearing them each to secrecy, of course, but people can be a little indiscreet at times so I don’t know.
The other matter is that I’m Australian. I’m embarrassed to even have to mention it but sadly, even in these progressive times, certain Americans have some fanciful notions about Australians. Something about us inheriting, by way of our colonial history as a penal settlement, some sort of vague and ill-defined tendency to commit criminal acts. I detest any sort of generalisation based on nationality, and never do it myself, but I suppose we should all be philosophical when dealing with a people descended from Puritans.
Note that less than a week ago everything had been fine on all fronts. And now a skull was missing and they were all wondering which fool let the Australian into the building.
It stung a little. I like Americans overall but having to contend with childish stereotypes like these had made me wonder if I should just clear off home to Thargomindah and be done with it all. Perhaps I err on the side of optimism but I’d decided, somehow, to give them one more chance. Besides, there was nothing left for me in Thargomindah anymore. Just painful memories, and a couple of irritating police constables wanting to have a word about a missing forklift.
Now stop and think, I told myself. What is the last thing my adversaries would expect me to do?
That gave me an idea. Turning right, I proceeded past the Circulation Desk and through the little gate marked ‘Staff Only’. Nobody could possibly expect me to stop by Wendell’s office; that would be so reckless it verged on lunacy. After all, it was Wendell who was coordinating the library’s so-called ‘Recovery Committee’, a secret task force charged with retrieving the skull from my possession. I wasn’t supposed to know about that, of course, but there are lots of things I’m not supposed to know – Wendell’s email password being only one.
Then again, I am the library’s IT Guy. In my profession, there is always one tricky client you have to keep your eye on, and for me that client is Wendell.
As an aside, what kind of librarian chooses ‘Library01’ to be their password, anyway? The answer to this question lay on the other side of the door in front of me. And, because I had stolen the skull of Phineas Gage, this was the exact door upon which I should not, under any circumstances, knock. Still, the look on his face when he opened it made the whole lark worthwhile.
“Hullo Shea,” he said, wide-eyed and dumbstruck.
“I don’t like you,” I told him, pushing past him and settling into the armchair across from his desk.
“Why don’t you like me?”
Well, look. This is a bit embarrassing but the truth is that I suffer from pathological problems with authority. I can’t explain that to Wendell, of course; Wendell is a middle-manager, and my disorder more or less prevents me from conveying any sort of useful information to managers.
“I can’t explain it to you,” I told him, shrugging. “All I can say is that my reasons are very complex and nuanced. Though it might be because I have pathological problems with authority and you’re a manager.”
Then I pressed my fingers to my temples and winced in spite of myself.
Nobody knows why, but Wendell wears horned-rim glasses which make him look like an undergraduate from the 1940s. There was nothing wrong with his eyesight; the lenses had no refraction and he often forgot to put them on, but he wore them just the same. Even if I didn’t have pathological problems with authority I am pretty sure those glasses would still annoy me. Wendell is a thirtyish year-old African-American with the genial but slightly harried air of a man far busier than he actually is. I have never seen the Circulation Desk manager occupied with anything that you or I might consider actual work. I suppose this is why he feels compelled to turn up to work in a suit or, at the very least, collared shirt and vest. In short, everything about Wendell is so sensible and pro-establishment that some days I can’t even look at him without feeling itchy.
“I know you have authority issues,” he said. “Listen, how long have you worked here now?”
“Eight months, give or take.”
“Then we’ve been having lunch together almost every single day for eight months.”
“So?” I replied cagily. “I enjoy our conversations. Just because you’re middle-management scum doesn’t mean we can’t be pleasant to one another.”
“Oh, of course,” he remembered, untucking his necktie from his vest and squinting at it. “You always get tense at me when I wear a tie.”
I shook my head in vigorous denial.
“Yes,” I said, then flinched and massaged my temple lightly. “And the reason for that is simple –”
“My neckties,” he recited, “seem to confirm your suspicion that I am an unsound person, to be either avoided at worse, or at best, antagonized.”
I gazed at him for a while, feeling the itch return. “Wendell, if I’ve ever repeated myself it is only because I like to be consistent in what I say.”
“Well I happen to like my ties,” he grumbled obstinately. “The ladies at the second-hand store where I buy them all say I have impeccable taste.”
I offered what I hoped was a polite grimace.
“Everything that is wrong with the world has been wrought by men wearing neckties. It is the uniform of oppression.”
“And I look good in ties. That’s what bothers you, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s the fact that you are wearing that travesty when it’s not even required by Harvard’s dress-code.”
“Let us pause for a moment to enjoy the pleasant irony of you lecturing anybody about the Harvard dress-code.”
Exasperating, isn’t he? For some perverse reason or other Wendell doesn\’t understand that dress codes don’t apply to me. I think he might have been harboring some resentfulness about it, actually, but that’s not my fault. I\’m a member of a caste that is expected to dress shabbily. It’s a tradition that symbolizes our exceptional importance.
“I work in IT,” I reminded him for the thousandth time. “This is our uniform.”
“Your cargo pants have grease stains on them,” he observed dispassionately. “And that t-shirt under your sweater? I know for a fact you were wearing that t-shirt yesterday.”
“I like this t-shirt,” I justified reasonably.
“And as for that gray sweater I also happen to know that you removed it from Lost and Found two months ago. I was there. I watched you do it.”
“It got cold two months ago. We Australians feel the cold, Wendell. Do you think I would have stolen this sweater from Lost and Found if it wasn’t cold?”
“It looks like it was a summer home for an entire generation of moths. Happy, well-nourished moths.”
I’ll admit I had shaken the occasional moth out of the sweater. Never with malice but with a sense of camaraderie for the little creatures. My people don\’t call them sweaters, by the way, they\’re jumpers, and this was the first I’d ever owned. I was very fond of it, holes and all.
But Wendell was wrong to imply I dressed carelessly. I was an employee of Harvard Medical School’s Central IT department, and we rarely did anything without a good reason. We liked to show up to work a little unkempt because it implied that we were too preoccupied with the esoteric to bother with the sartorial. Dressing shabbily reminds everybody of our respective importance. Or, to put it another way, my ‘sweater’ implied a threateningly high level of technical competence. It also recommended that everybody had therefore better be nice to me or I wouldn\’t fix their computers.
“People like myself,” I said to Wendell, “don’t believe in dress codes.”
“But you don\’t mind enforcing one on me.”
“It’s completely different. There are principles at stake. For generations, men dreamed of not being required to wear ties. Men once stood and died on blood-stained barricades for the right not to wear a tie, and here you are, brazenly spitting on their legacy.
“And for what? For the chance that some higher-up spots you in the elevator and makes a note of it in some large leather-bound ledger.
“Thursday,” I said, pantomiming the writing in a diary. “Rain storms. Tea with U.S. Attorney General. Young Wendell wore a tie again. Clearly a serious-minded individual. Let’s promote him to senior management at our earliest convenience….”
Wendell received my mockery with a wry smile. “Oh, come on, you know Harvard only awards promotions based on merit.”
I know it is wrong to snicker but we snickered anyway. And, for the record, he snickered first. He’s a snickerer, that Wendell. Take it from me – I am sufficiently comfortable in myself to be able to admit other people’s flaws.
“Well, this has been nice,” he said, moving around his desk and settling into his office chair. “But I’m going to have to excuse myself. I’m very busy today.”
I stared at him expectantly.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said at last. “You were being serious.”
“Yes. What’s wrong with that?”
“I’m trying to imagine what you being busy would look like.”
“I’m often busy!”
“Don’t do that. Don’t spoil a successful joke with hyperbole.”
“I am being serious, Shea,” he said, eyeing me closely. “I’m not authorized to talk about this with you but there’s a kerfuffle that needs dealing with.”
“You mean that business with the skull?” I asked with practiced innocence. “Word around the library is that it’s a hullabaloo.”
He raised an eyebrow at me.
“Is that what they’re saying now? What a lot of nonsense,” he muttered disgustedly. “The librarians wouldn’t know a ruckus from a fracas.”
“Still, a hullabaloo is no laughing matter….”
“As I said before,” he said, a little tersely, and staring over the tops of his glasses, “it’s only a kerfuffle, and we’re keeping it contained. Fortunately, the Director has stayed out of it so far but I don’t know how much longer that will be the case. If the Director gets involved, it’ll be a rumpus by nightfall. Or even worse, a brouhaha.”
“You know, if you’re not careful, Wendell, you might have a fiasco on your hands.”
“It won’t become a fiasco! Trust me, we’ve got this well-and-truly in hand. Besides, the skull isn’t even officially missing yet. Which is a good thing, really, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to talk about it openly.”
Of course, Harvard hadn’t formally acknowledged the theft. Wendell had probably assumed that the Dean’s Office was being unnecessarily vague about the entire affair but it was more likely that they were trying to postpone communication with the library for as long as possible.
Let us be clear. The Dean’s Office at Harvard Medical School has never, in any official capacity, described its relationship with the library as vexed. And it has never publicly described the librarians themselves as a “bunch of wild-eyed agitators who will one day get their just-desserts, oh just you wait and see.”
On a separate topic, it’s funny the way people often assume their IT guys are too busy working on a computer to listen to anything being said around them. Even more remarkable is this widely held assumption that we’re not passing interesting information among ourselves. Poor Wendell here was well connected at Harvard in some respects but he could only ever see as far as the windows of the library. My situation was very different.
Even though my office was in the library, officially I was an employee of the illustrious Central IT department on the far side of the campus. I had been embedded here as the library’s resident ‘IT Specialist’ – a vague title that carried with it an air of mystical interpretation that could be very useful at times. As a member of Central IT, I was connected to a spy network made up of more than thirty similarly-named ‘IT Specialists’ embedded all over the campus.
Unfortunately for Wendell, even though the Dean’s Office and the Countway Library of Medicine are housed in adjacent buildings, they were barely on speaking terms. Their respective outlooks are just so different, I suppose. To appreciate the differences between them, all you have to do is contrast each organization’s attitude towards ghosts. Let me explain.
When the skull of Phineas Gage disappeared, nobody knew until the next morning because the security guards hadn’t patrolled the library\’s upper floors the night before. In fact, they hadn’t patrolled the library after hours in years, owing to all the ‘weird ju-jus’ up there.
The librarians had never minded, of course. They knew all about the ‘supernatural wildlife\‘, as some referred to it, but were of the view that it provided the building with an intriguing ambiance. They are fair-minded folk, the librarians, and it didn’t sit well with them that the security guards had to wander about upstairs, late at night, dealing with all that creepiness.
The Dean’s Office, on the other hand, took a different view of the matter. “Harvard Medical School’s library has no ghosts,” they claimed, “because there is no such thing as ghosts.” And, “furthermore this is the premier medical research university in the world and the library had better get its act together.
“Those security guards have a job to do. There is nothing in their union negotiations excusing their patrols owing to – what did they call it, again? Yes, here it is. ‘Nebulous feelings of preternatural dread’. . ..” Etc.
In any case, and regardless of their disagreement over the supernatural, the fact is that nobody knew that the skull was missing until Tuesday morning. There was a day or so to reflect on the matter, and after that everybody became reticent.
Faced with any awkwardness, Harvard always becomes reticent. What do I mean by awkwardness? I mean the possibility of hypothetical headlines in international newspapers like: ‘Harvard Loses its Skull’. That kind of awkwardness.
“If the skull isn’t officially missing, yet,” I wondered out loud to Wendell, “what is there to talk about openly?”
“Well, we could discuss the rumors of your involvement,” he replied, like some sort of amateur Sherlock Holmes.
I sighed. “The rumors of my involvement in the case of the skull that is not officially missing from the museum?”
He nodded emphatically. “It sounds like a Zen kōan, doesn’t it? But unfortunately, many of our colleagues recall overhearing you saying that the skull might become ‘not officially missing’ one day.”
“Wendell can you imagine me ever telling anyone that the skull might become ‘not officially missing’? Have I ever been that fluent in Harvard political speak?
“And what is all this talk of people overhearing things that I may or may not have said? There seems to be a lot of very vague eavesdroppers in this library!”
He became solemn. “It’s a troubling situation for many of the staff. Right now, the skull of Phineas Gage is neither within its cabinet nor without. You know, we librarians don\’t enjoy this amount of speculation about reality. We like reality to be firm and steady. Until the university administration can confirm the skull’s situation, we are all suffering the skull’s crisis of existence as best we know how.”
“This is all my fault,” I remarked irritably.
Wendell gave me a startled glance.
“Yes, I should never have prognosticated,” I continued. “All I did was predict that the skull would one day go missing. It wasn’t so difficult to do, and is hardly a sign that I had anything to do with it.”
He gazed at me with narrowed eyes. “Of course, of course. But it’s not as simple as that, is it? You know more than you’re suggesting, perhaps?”
“I have to admit I’m enjoying this. I get the strongest feeling, mate, that you’re listening very closely to everything I have to say. Trust me, speaking as someone who works in IT this is quite the novelty.”
Eight months into the job and the staff here were still writing their passwords on sticky-notes attached to the sides of their computer monitors. Nothing I had said concerning information security had had any lasting effect on the librarians. At some point I think I just stopped caring what I said to anyone. By August I could be heard around the library chattering freely about the race of alien lizards who had covertly seized control of the US Government. Nobody had batted an eyelash.
Today, on the other hand, I was a person of interest. Some among the upper-echelons of Harvard University were treating anything I’d ever said or typed in an email as unholy gospel. While Wendell and I sat here talking, certain individuals were almost certainly poring over my emails with great curiosity. Unfortunately, I had barely mentioned the alien menace in any of my workplace emails. Reflecting upon it now in Wendell\’s office, it seemed like I\’d wasted a good opportunity.
“I imagine you must feel you’re in a tricky situation,” he said after a long, calculating pause.
“Would you like me to tell you my side of the story?”
“That would depend on the story’s genre.”
“What do you mean?”
Wendel informed me that he had never been partial to westerns or historical fiction, and he\’d be grateful if no zombies popped up inside my narrative because thinking of them gave him chills.
“This is a heist story,” I explained patiently, “with elements of mystery and a dash of the supernatural.”
“I also like stories that wrap up nicely at the end. I don’t want to be left in the dark about anything. I hate that.”
I looked at him, nonplussed. “Can I just begin?”
He nodded eagerly.
“Right,” I began. “It was all a great misunderstanding. One day –”
“Wait a moment – is this a love story?”
“What?! What are you talking about now?”
“You said it was a great misunderstanding. And that sounds like a love story to me.”
“It’s not a …” I broke off distractedly. “Well, you know there is a – but look here, I don’t know where that particular arc is going – and besides, I haven’t had time to consider the matter too closely. I’ve been too caught up in events, I suppose.”
“I was caught up in events, once,” he said, a little wistfully.
“I could leave,” I suggested, leaping to my feet.
Wendell leaped to his feet as well, and waved his hands about as if to suggest the opposite, so I returned to my chair.
“Where was I?”
“We were establishing genre. Elements of romance or something.”
“If you like,” I said through gritted teeth. “You know, Wendell, being the suspect of a crime is a lot like being in a love story. People hang on your every word, but all they really want to do is take away your freedom.”
“Or perhaps you haven’t stolen any hearts,” he mused. “Just a priceless skull.”
I’ll admit it. I did, in that moment, consider taking my chances with the battalion of heavily beweaponed law-enforcement thugs waiting outside my office; at least they wouldn’t be as bloody-minded as Wendell.
“It was all a great misunderstanding,” I repeated.
“I hear you,” he said. “You’re saying you only stole the skull by accident.”
“I predicted the skull would be stolen,” I went on, ignoring his nonsense, “because it seemed to me that it was bound to happen one of these days. And after a while I began wondering how such a thing would be done. Skip ahead in the story and one day I found myself planning the theft of Phineas Gage’s skull.”
He nodded. “This is widely-remembered.”
“But there are certain facets to this story that are not widely-remembered, Wendell. For instance …”
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