Mark McLaughlin – Calvino

Mark McLaughlin lives with his partner, Alice, and two sons, Eric and Cian, in the old Viking city of Waterford.


By Mark McLaughlin

It happened on a call with about 25 people just as Paul was gearing up to speak. He was waiting for the prompt from the program manager to give the update for the Calvino project when it was as if someone cut his strings. Looking back on the recording, his shoulders gave, and his head fell forward. He could remember a certain lightness and his colleagues rising up through his field of vision. Only a couple of people saw the episode in real time, as they scanned listlessly the mosaic of tiles of their colleagues’ faces to the right of the shared screen. An American woman interrupted the speaker to draw attention to what she thought she had seen. A tuft of hair and the lobe of an ear remained in camera, immune to their hails.

He wasn’t out for more than a couple of minutes, but it had been long enough for the participants to be dispersed. The program manager and a peer from his own organisation remained on the call to see if he would come to, to offer any assistance they could. His manager was sought and found, and, thankfully, had a personal phone number for him. The people team had been informed. On the first ring, the tuft wiggled, his head rose, and Paul righted himself to take the call as if nothing had happened. The voice in his ear was his manager’s, as was the echo through his discarded headset. He put two and two together and rejoined the call, hanging up the phone, and they talked about what had happened, or rather Paul listened to their account, having no light of his own to shed.

If his consciousness had fled the scene, however, it had not departed completely: he’d had a sort of dream. There was a first holy communion, and proud voices sung up the spirits of Joseph Plunkett and the titular Grace: “Oh, Grace, just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger…”. John led in a lovely steady voice the men in their Sunday best and the women decently made-up, in fine frocks and earrings. They were family, but from a past time; he might have been one of the kids running around drunk on coke. Kind eyes alighted on John, his back straight in the chair, giving it out from deep through a throat burning with cigarette smoke. His own eyes fell as he settled himself for the low notes, “They’ll take me out at dawn and I will die”. Their old troubles, modest triumphs and secret hopes flashed from behind their eyes as soaring vibratos rejoined, “With all my love I place this wedding ring upon your finger…”.

The echoes of this rendition, along with its ghostly celebrants, rang in the windswept halls of his mind as he addressed himself to his colleagues. His first task had been to allay the immediate fears for his health. His wife had had to appear on a call to reassure the corporate machinery of his home support and of the new vigilance which must be brought to bear on his physical and mental health. A plan of medical examinations was put in place. He gave the people team and the management hierarchy their say and their due. However, after a few days, he moved to bring the whole tedious circus to a close. He lightheartedly reassured his colleagues on the call the following week, gave his much-delayed and now over-billed update on the Calvino project without incident, and let it be known in side-channels that the topic was not to be broached again. In and out of those follow-up calls, the tireless voices of his vision belt out the chorus of ‘Grace’, always at the edge of his awareness and never fully letting up.

He felt like he was on a kind of escalator, passing slowly in and out of scenes: the nurse taking blood, the therapist making notes, the hospital waiting rooms. It was a tame clinical odyssey in which he played no active part, but on which he might face anything, be detained or even destroyed. In those days he was always in his car, sailing to appointments with the sun streaming in the windows, it’s kneading warmth working its way into his bones. Grace was still with him, though more joyful now and less insistent. Sailing was the word, through a smashed calendar of now optional obligations, past action items which would be done when they were done. His health was his highest priority, he had been told, and having stumbled in the line, having slipped, for the present, out of the great chain of corporate being, he was powerless to argue.

“How are you really, do you feel sick?” his wife had asked. “I feel fine,” he’d said. “Are you stressed or worried about anything?” “Not that I know of,” he’d answered.

“Did you know that Italo Calvino is an author?” he’d thought of saying to her, “can you believe they named a software project after him?” Someone found his name on the internet and read that his books were dreamy or magical, and they thought that since their software project would be a bit unconventional, it would make a good name. Now Calvino is something you develop, install and fix when its broken; you need to hire people who have experience with Calvino. Now when you say Calvino, nobody knows it’s an author. But the moment and the impulse passed. She was content for the time being that all seemed well. He did indeed seem well, and his examinations were in train. In uncertain times, she understood, life must be laid down like a track and listened to only later.

That night he had the terrors. First, he was back at work in an office, but in an old style office, an art deco-style newsroom, lined with desks with typewriters, with paper files hanging out of shelves along the walls. He was an old-style boss, a stickler for his men showing up on time and looking the part, a real ball-breaker, a bastard. He paced up and down past the desks casting threatening shadows over them. Better to be feared than loved, he thought afterwards. Second, in his own office, there was a large pit between his bankers desk and the door. Stacks of clipped papers had been thrown in there. His men would knock and, once admitted, throw their work down into the pit and leave. But of course there was something down in the pit beneath the stacks of paper, something alive. Very Freudian. For some considerable dreamtime he regarded the pit, its irregularity, it’s uncertain depth, its smooth tulipped walls. He was in a panic because he could not shake the idea that it was one of his children down there underneath, too damaged to be saved, and the horror to see it, them, could not be borne, but how could he not go down and dig and dig and see? Even though it was a trap.

The next morning in the shower, as the foul magic rescinded, he found that Grace was already in full song though he had not been aware of it, “…and let this moment linger…”. By Christ, he thought, no peace by night or by day. His real job, in which he manifested virtually at appointed times, and was not a bastard, or loved for that matter, was a hard grind of heavy pleading. Of encouraging people to do what they ordinarily did, but if it was not too much bother, to do it in such a way that the lives of others became easier and the corporate strategy more realisable. Every initiative was small scale, long term, risky, fragile and increditable. Their outcomes were obscure and intangible; the link between causes and effects as dubitable as the link between toilet hygiene and lifetime earnings. Like the flailing salesman, he polished his metaphorical shoes and shined his symbolic belt buckle, shaved and trimmed his nose hair, remembered always to smile and to remember people’s names, on faith, that in time his projects would yield their reward. But of course now the flipside presented itself: that doing little or nothing would make no observable difference, that he, like the lazy pallbearer, could occupy a place of dignity and yet contribute nothing.

Back in the bedroom, he was assaulted by rowdy children, whom he hugged for their own sake and to be reunited with them after the journeys of the night. May we be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows we’re dead, he thought. And when would that be? Every test result was a bullet whizzing past, a mortal threat avoided, but also a widening out of a realm of unspecifiable weakness and threat. Everything could be ruled out except the fact of a nervous system failure, an involuntary collapse, a symptom of a sickness whether they had a name for it or not. Later he went to the endocrinologist. She was stationed in a room at the hospital. Something was elevated, but not, in her opinion, indicative of a disease. “We are all a bit different,” she said, “higher levels of any of hormone is not necessarily a problem, and I don’t see any signs of disease.” He smiled and thanked and bobbed out the door like he’d escaped the hangman’s noose, before realising that nothing had changed.

William was happy to hear the news. His psychotherapist naturally saw the whole incident in psychological terms. He liked going to William because William was paid to listen to everything he said, even if William got to choose the topics and the questions. Paul had to explain a lot about his work, about video calls and meetings, how they were run, about the process and personal interactions involved in software development. He always found it bewildering how little people knew about the tech industry, or that there were still people whose jobs entailed turning up bodily at a location between 9 and 5 each day, doing something, and then “leaving” work. He’d explained to him all about his vision, as William insisted on terming it, about Grace, his family, who was at the gathering and who was not, where he was in the scene and what he was doing. He’d found some meat in this depiction, no doubt. He had raked at it last time like a seagull scavenging chips from a bin. But he had not given, if he ever would, the doctor’s interpretation.

Now when Paul came to him with this outrageous Freudian dream about the pit in the old-style office, he seemed disconcerted or put out, as if a neat picture had been daubed over by a prima donna.

“Dream interpretation,” said William, “does not hold the same place in our profession as it once did. Let’s change tack. Tell me about Calvino.”

“Well, as I said before,” began Paul, ”I am responsible for a project called Calvino. The people who started the project thought that the technical design was strange and unconventional, and they needed a name, so they named it after the author, Italo Calvino.”

“This annoys you.”


“Can you explain to me what the Calvino software does?”

“I’m not sure,” replied Paul, ”and honestly this is part of the problem, why take a man’s name when you think his books are not worth reading — because I guarantee you they do not — and use it to add mystique or gravitas to a project the author would have no interest in or understanding of? I might be able to tell you how it works, but I can only guess what it’s used for.”

“Try to tell me how it works.”

Paul’s mind was a hive of bees, but he gave his disjointed account, more or less allowing sense and colour to invade a flawed technical explanation. Later, he asked himself, what was it really? Calvino was a pipeline processor, backed by an in-memory graph database, which spun out great plumes of semantic linkages from emergent relationships in data. Like its AI plugin companions, its potential was felt to be unlimited, but in practice, so far as he knew, it was used mainly in online gambling and finance. The engineers, whom he tended with care, tinkered eagerly with its algorithms, like gods in pocket universes, their issue harvested quietly by product and sales for real world consumption.

On his way home, he walked down a decrepit side street, tangentially towards the carpark, cutting needlessly oblique angles against his destination. He noticed the art gallery come creative space that the council had opened to artists after the property crash. The door was open, so he went inside for a look around. A few attractively scruffy young people lounged on a couch, freed, no doubt, from the mild obligations of their studies. He looked about for somebody he thought resembled an artist, or at least an adult, for whom life and art were painfully welded. He found a woman of about thirty in an annex at the end of a hall sorting through stones, feathers and brick-a-brack.

“Excuse me,” he said impudently, “would you mind telling me what you are working on?”

“Hi,” she said, giving him a quizzical look, “I’m working on an instillation.”

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” he said, “but would you mind explaining a bit more? I don’t know anything about art.”

“Sure,” she said with a smile. “At the moment, I’m experimenting with vortices made of stones and lined with feathers in the centre. It’s a challenge to make them, but when you do it right, it kind of looks like it’s pulling you in. The feathers give it kind of a living aspect. Here’s a sketch, if you’re interested,” she said, pointing to a half-buried pad.

He looked. “I see. That’s interesting,” he began, finding himself, indeed, visually drawn, but having no words with which to expand.

“What are you looking for?” she asked.

“I’m not sure,” he answered.

“Are you looking for something here?”

“Not exactly. Have you heard of Italo Calvino?”

“No,” she said.

“He was an author. Tell me, is art always about abstract things?”

“Sometimes, but art is about life. Some people think that art imitates life. Other people think that life imitates art.”

“Does your art imitate your life?” he asked.

“It’s not so simple,” she said, feeling a bit sour, but seeing nothing in his eyes. “In a way it represents that core of existence that we can’t understand”.

“I don’t think there is any art that reflects my life,” he said.

“Do you mean your work?”

“Yes, I can’t believe there is any art that reflects calendars, meetings, notifications, video calls, headsets, ticketing systems and software. That is my life.”

“There must be something,” she said.

“I think there is nothing,” he said, feeling suddenly clear. “I think artists do not see this world, and the people who see this world can never be artists.”

A cloud passed over her features, within it wisps of comprehension, of compassion. The oval sky cleared with difficulty.

“Thank you for your time,” he said, and he removed himself as suddenly as he had appeared.

There was something in that feathery vortex, as one thing recalls the memory of another, that put him in mind of a spider’s web. He had been terrified of spiders as a child and did not love them even now, though he accepted them. Grace was there with him in that moment, though the voices were faint, indistinguishable and fading. Everyone laughed and drunk together in the 80’s, hiding from, occasionally transcending, their money problems, troubled marriages, their faithlessness in salvation. Children explored private property where trespassers would be prosecuted, broke holes through disintegrating walls, infested neglected copses between schools, high walls and the backs of houses, where, indeed, spiders and every kind of thing could be found. Some of their parents were looking up, harbouring hopes that a son might make it to university, and whatever came after.

A memory, that was doubtless a false one, came to him of a spider falling from his neck on to the keyboard just before he passed out. It was silly. In the sunset of consciousness, shadows and sounds are smeared like dirty paints on used canvas only to be taken up again and reworked later. In Cork last week the tide went out the wrong way for a few minutes, momentarily draining its harbours and dragging boats against the bottom of its tidal rivers: that had not been explained either.

Paul bought a book by Italo Calvino called, “Invisible cities”, to fill the gaps between meetings. He felt it was the least he could do. Each page was strange and interesting, but it never seemed to add up to anything. He went to the next page expecting the story to move on, but it was just another odd description of a non-existent city. It became a chore and he put it down. There was another world, a parallel universe, where he understood and appreciated books like these, where he’d never learned of its namesake. It was a world, maybe, in which he worried about covering the rent, where his problems were real problems that touched the flesh. He stood at the outer reaches of one life, peering outwards, seeing now that he was also looking inwards at another from a great distance. If there had ever been a path from one to the other, he could not see it now.




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