In the living room of their vast New York City apartment, Simon Wilson and his eighteen-month-old daughter Rose stare at each other. She sits at the foot of his armchair, with two Lego pieces in her hands and tries to mimic his movements. He separates two blocks and puts them together again. ‘You see,’ he says, but she doesn’t. She presses the pieces at acute angles until they fall from her hands, and he picks her up and sets her on his knee.
He kisses her cheek. ‘Daddy missed you,’ he says, even though he only spent the day at work, and kissed her goodbye before he left. She grabs his hands with her little fingers and he accepts, again, that she is far too young for Lego. From the table he lifts one of her books, a striped tiger with a wild grin stares at him from the front cover. She reaches down and wipes her hand across the animals face.
‘Wait, wait,’ he warns, and she does.
He opens the book and on the inside page the tiger appears again: full body, with the felt fur to go with it. ‘Ok,’ he says, and she reaches out slowly, daring herself, then flinches as she touches the material, like it gave off an electric shock, like the animal might jump out at her. Then, having convinced herself, she reaches forward again, touches its head, and runs her hand smoothly over the four inches of its body. She laughs, and he sees the focus in her eyes.
‘What’s his name?’ he asks.
He sets her down again and she feels the rug beneath her, rubs her hands across it like she had the felt of the tiger, then holds up her palms and looks at them, as though the sensation means they should have changed. The floor, like the room in general, is tidy, bar the pieces of Lego scattered around it. He only took the loose pieces out ten minutes ago, but that’s what happens. He leans back and allows the cushions to soak up the stress in his back and shoulders. It’s only when he gets home that he feels tired, and only here, when he imagines what he has missed, that the day away feels long.
She is staring up at him. ‘Where’s the other Tiger?’ he asks, and points her towards the puddle of Lego animals by the fireplace. She crawls over, though she is fit to walk, and looks for a second, hovers her hand, then grabs it. ‘Tiger!’ she says, as she turns around and holds it up proudly.
The door opens and Lilly comes in from the hall.
‘Tiger,’ Rose says again, in her mother’s direction, then she puts the tiger’s head in her mouth and nibbles gently on it with her three teeth.
‘No,’ her mother says, and Rose stops, dropping the creature to the ground. ‘No,’ she repeats, and turns to him. ‘You do keep an eye on her, with those things, don’t you? Lego all over the place, she’s far too young for Lego.’
He nods conformingly as he feels his wife’s warm arm around the back of his neck. ‘But she does like it,’ she says, acknowledging their daughter moving the Lego around the carpet, sliding the pieces this way and that. ‘Even if she can’t play with it properly.’
He stands up and goes and sits beside her. Holding the pieces of Lego up so she can see, he places them onto the structure he has been building with them: a lavish house, hotel, castle with animals grazing around it. Her eyes gaze at him as he takes the tiger piece and places it into the garden with a click.
‘There you go, Rose,’ Lilly says from over his shoulder, and he tries to pretend that the Lego house built over weeks, ten, fifteen, minutes at a time, is believable proof that he isn’t missing his daughters childhood.
When they’ve had dinner and she’s been kissed goodnight he goes to his study. His favourite room, filled with mahogany and leather, it is the one part of his life he never feels guilty or conspicuous about lavishing grandeur on. It’s not on show, it’s his. It houses the most expensive and exotic things in the house, though they aren’t superficial or materialistic. There are no jewels, or gold, and were a burglar to sneak in there are no pieces of technology, no priceless materials that could be slipped into a bag and taken away. Instead there are expansive, gleaming, table top surfaces, wingback chairs and tall bookshelves. The art on the wall is inspiring, but not priceless, and the décor, though not bland, is understated. To feel the wealth of the place, which is only about twenty feet by ten feet in size, one has to live in it, read in it and write in it, and this is what he does.
He goes to the record player, adjusts the needle, and gentle music fills the room. Music is mystical to him. He has never played a note and never wants to, but he adores it. He breathes in the almost ancient sounds of the piano; it is otherworldly, alien, and he believes that even the greatest musicians and composers do not create music, they merely summon it and try and keep it under control. He pours a drink, sits down and opens a book. He reads the words and they enter his head to the beats and pauses of the music around him. He doesn’t mind, they are getting there nonetheless, and it is all the more pleasurable for it. His wife is on the phone in the kitchen, and he imagines that he can hear Rose breathing gently upstairs, and it is a rare time in the day when he doesn’t feel guilty.
It is in his study that Simon feels best about his career. Give it ten minutes, a few sips of scotch, an interesting page or two from a recently published book, article or journal, and he will feel better about his work than he ever does in the office. Here, the fantasies come alive in a way they never do in the sobering reality of the laboratory, with all its facts and figures, its experiments and the resulting evidence, which so rarely offer any good news but never enough bad news to allow them to give up. There are times when he would welcome the latter, just to hear something coherent and clear; to have a result. He works in Animal Preservation and Restoration. It still doesn’t sound right in his head; there isn’t a ring to it. Animal Preservation and Restoration. The second part, Restoration, is new; as new to him as it is to anyone. One of the greater developments of the second half of the twenty-first century, there are still times when it feels like a fantasy, when it seems futuristic and he wonders even now, in the year 2056, if it’s possible at all.
Not now, however. Not here. As he sips from his glass and leafs through the pages of a national journal, he feels the effects of both begin to take over. He has escaped these recurring concerns and he feels good. Moving across to the table he opens a notebook and writes something down; just a thought, a musing on what he has read, which though not quite a full idea, is not one he wants to forget either. This is what he does: allows his evening mind to wander on a long leash and waits for the cold morning’s eye to decide if the resulting thoughts are anything worth pursuing. More often than not they aren’t, but he is never afraid to let his mind go. So much of what he does is fiction – today’s fiction which could be tomorrow’s fact – and when it becomes fact and there are decisions to be made, it is his job to have already thought of them as such, so that when they can do something, he knows whether or not they should.
He finishes writing. These are conversations he has alone, between him and his notebook, but they soothe him, even if he can never be sure that they will help anyone else. While his office forces him to be face to face with reality, with the slow progress being carried out by those around him and those around the world, here he can dream, without the limitations of today and with the hopes of tomorrow. Then he can be ready to make his decisions. He had to make one only hours before; scrap an idea, tell his colleagues they would not be pursuing a project. It made for an awkward atmosphere in the office, but it was his job.
He hears a noise over his shoulder. His wife has appeared at the door, holding the television remote, and he follows her back into the living room.
At the kitchen table, Lilly flicks through a newspaper, Rose rattles her plastic spoon, quietly and not without rhythm, against the table of her highchair, and Simon, reading from his laptop, says, ‘You know, there are about 62 Lego bricks per person of the earth’s population. 40 billion of those stacked on top of one another would reach the moon. A Lego brick made from 1958 would still interlock with a Lego brick made today. 62 bricks per person – that’s more than four hundred billion bricks produced since 1958. Can you believe that?’
Lilly doesn’t look up. ‘Eh?’ he says. ‘Can you believe it?’
‘Of course I can,’ she says, turning a page. ‘I feel like we own half of them.’
Rose bangs louder, continuing her drum solo.
He finishes eating and goes to his study, moving around the room, putting things in his bag, readying himself to leave for the office. Lilly regularly wonders aloud if he would not be better doing this the night before, but he prefers it this way. He likes lifting the papers he worked at the day before and glancing at them, remembering; likes feeling the weight of everything he packs and being reintroduced to the weight of what he does; likes lifting a newspaper or magazine from beside the empty scotch glass, and revisiting the thought or idea it had given him, or, if he can’t quite remember it, going to his note book to read it, before sliding it into his satchel with all the others. Of course he doesn’t like these things at all, he needs them. Because if he went in blind, opened the laboratory doors one morning without having gently reminded himself of everything, he’s not sure he’d believe any of it when he got there.
He hears Rose laughing out in the kitchen. Always laughing, and she so rarely cries. So like her mother too. He considers himself very lucky. Rose doesn’t know that her father leaves her every day to go work with the animals she points at in her picture books. She doesn’t know that what her father does is thought by those who do it to be ground-breaking, world-changing, affecting men and animals thousands of miles away. Most of all she doesn’t know what it all means, doesn’t even know if it will ever work, and neither does he.
He drops his now heavy bag at the door, setting off the usual sequence of sounds. His back is still turned as he hears his wife, behind him, make her way past. She knows he is now free to return to Rose, and he does. He lifts her – he always does when she reaches her hands up, clutching at air, clutching at him. He holds her in one arm and pours another cup of coffee as he hears the shower kick-in in their bedroom. He holds the hot cup under her nose and watches as she smells it then makes an ugly, refusing face. He mimics her, copies her disgust, then watches her face turn to horror as he drinks it anyway.
They pass the island and he puts down the coffee and lifts her sippy cup. He sets her on the foam, jig-saw piece mat and kneels down beside her. The mat isn’t big, but once there she never strays from it, as though she were surrounded by a cliff edge. He paws a soft, foam ball over towards her; she reaches for it, misses and topples over. She laughs, he smiles. Already he hears the noise – or lack of it – of the shower turning off. He knows his wife will be down in minutes and he will set off for work.
Five Lego bricks sit neatly on his office desk, like sand from the Sahara or pebbles from the beach where they shared their honeymoon. He switches on his computer and sits back in the chair. There is no one else in the office. Four empty desks around him, all well-spaced out, granting the option to talk but not the obligation.
He is usually the last in, so he assumes they’re at a meeting. He isn’t missing anything. Any meeting they have will be too technical for him; nothing he wouldn’t understand per se, but nothing that he has to clutter his mind with either. He is more than capable of the work they do themselves, and sometimes he craves getting his hands dirty. It can be messy work. Blood, sperm and umbilical cords. Cells. Cells in animals, animas in cells. Not much of it is ever pleasant, but it’s his life’s work nonetheless. Cloning animals can be used to help save endangered species, if they can just figure out how, and there is never a question of him doing anything else.
It’s the results, where exactly they are, rather than how they are getting there, which is his primary concern. Knowing what they are doing, deciding if they can proceed, and calculating how much becomes public knowledge is his brief. ‘Don’t let this get out of hand,’ was an early message from those above him. ‘Don’t hinder us,’ is the silent protest he often senses from the young, ambitious scientists below.
Here they are now: the door opens and three of his colleagues come in and approach the desks. Two of them simply nod with a smile, while another comes and sits on the edge of his desk, peering down at him.
Mark, a man twelve years his junior, says his name questioningly, almost pleadingly. ‘Come on, man.’
‘No,’ Simon says, without looking up at him, logging into his computer.
‘Seriously? Why not?’
He stands up. ‘We went through all this yesterday, Mark. It’s too much. Let it go.’
‘Money. You want to spend a fortune on a hunch, be my guest. But don’t ask me to allocate my department’s funding to it.’
‘Do you even understand what this could do?’
Simon is walking over to the far side of the room, to pass his other colleague the article he read last night, but he stops and turns to Mark again, looking him in the eye for the first time, engaging him and the conversation in a way he’d hoped he wouldn’t have too.
‘Don’t question what I understand about anything in my office. You are all specialists, impressively so, but I know every detail I need to. Now get back to work, and don’t dare question my decisions again.’
He has heard something interesting just now, in the break room, as he made a quick cup of coffee.
Two of his female colleagues talking:
‘We set up an e-mail account for our daughter.’
‘But your daughter isn’t even born yet.’
‘No, but we e-mail her every now and then anyway, let her know how I’m doing, how she’s getting on in there. When she turns eighteen, we’ll give her the password for the email address, and she can read them all.’
He’s back in his office, at his desk. It’s been a quiet morning. Mark is frustrated, but it’s not personal; he just needs a new idea, another thing to get passionate about. That will come and he’ll perk up again. This is his job: controlling these scientists, these minds, and yes, these egos. With no pressing matter to distract him, he opens his email and hovers the mouse, stalling between logging into his own account and creating a new one. After a moment he lets curiosity and impulse get the better of him and clicks ‘create account.’ He does it all quick: puts in a few fake details, creates an e-mail handle around his daughters name, thinks of a password, then logs out of the e-mail account as quick as he has made it and re-opens his own. He opens a new e-mail, types the newly created address. It’s all done before he knows it, before intrigue has turned to passion, before curiosity has created excitement; so as the door of the office opens and one of his colleagues comes in, taking him by surprise which feels like guilt, he closes the respective tabs, feeling a mixture of shyness and embarrassment.
With an empty monitor in front of him, he opens his work emails. The first message he reads means it’s some time before he thinks of his daughters new e-mail address again.
Andrew Maguire has an MA in Creative Writing from Queen’s University Belfast and is employed at South West College, where he writes and edits ‘Way Out West’, which won best blog at the 2017 European Digital Communication Awards. He’s a primary organiser of the Omagh Literary Festival. His short fiction has been published in Blackbird, The Incubator and The Honest Ulsterman.