What follows is a tale of woe with a hint of mystery.
To begin with, the woe. Current affairs being what they are, this is very small beer, but all the same, I’m sure at least one of you will sympathise.
One day in February, I charged up my MacBook, then went to make it cup of tea to brace myself for the process of ensuring that all the latest versions of my manuscripts had been saved and backed up securely.
When I came back, the MacBook was an ex-MacBook. (If you don’t get that reference, perhaps I’m too old and too British.) Was every file and photograph I wanted on i-cloud? No. (I appreciate this is down to operator error, but it was frustrating all the same.)
Lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth followed. Making a long story relatively short, the computer chap in town couldn’t help, a young man with his baseball cap on backwards in the Apple Store couldn’t help and I was left with the option to send it off to an organisation in the States who can sometimes retrieve data when this sort of thing happens. (Apparently, the motherboard had gone peculiar – I know that feeling.)
I held out the hope that somehow the tech equivalent of a poke around with a screwdriver and blowing the fluff out would do the trick, but deep down I knew it wouldn’t. After a few days someone rang me from California to explain at length what they’d need to do. I work with enough tech teams for my heart to sink as he spoke. They quoted $3000, so I declined and they sent it back.
By now, I had Miss Lucy Had A Baby going round in my head. In the version I learned, the key verse (which seems to have been softened up since) went: ‘“Dead,” said the doctor. “Dead,” said the nurse. “Dead,” said the lady with the alligator purse.’
In my head, it was replaced less elegantly with ‘“Dead,” said the local chap. “Dead,” said the Apple guy. “Dead,” said the techie under Californian skies.
The only upside was that I’d bought a Windows laptop shortly before as a sort of extra backup, although I hadn’t got around to copying documents across (it was to have been another task for the day the MacBook died). It took me about a month to retrieve crucial documents, convert them to the right format, update them, then save them securely in various places. It felt a lot longer than a month and I think I went through all seven stages of grief. I’ve been playing writing catch-up ever since.
One thing impacted of course, was passwords, which moves us onto the mystery.
Perhaps due to temporary insanity, realising that on top of the thirteen plus passwords I have for my office job, I had even more for the rest of my life, made me think of trying to get into a locked filing cabinet in a locked room behind a series of locked doors in a locked castle. And that reminded me of many years ago when I was deputy office manager, and the day when the office manager and I had to do a key audit and found something curious.
Due to the nature of our work, the rule was that no one person should be able to get to anything important alone. This meant for example, that one person would have a key to the safe where the cash tin was, but a different person would have a key to the tin itself, and someone with a key to get into the building (and thus likely to be in early and potentially on their own for a while) didn’t have a key to the safe etc. Other keys were kept in what we called a ‘key press’ and checked out and in during the day as necessary. As a small team, this was logistically complex.
Our office dated from the 1880s, but by the time I was working there, its lovely Victorian rooms had long since been Frankensteined. Late twentieth century utility office furniture pressed like unsavoury strangers up against elegant Edwardian index-card drawers and counters with Art Nouveau carvings.
Anyway, on this particular day, the office manager and I took everyone’s set of keys to check off against a massive list and then cross-referenced them to make sure that no one could commit fraud if they were inclined to. All the keys were less than twenty years old. Most were relatively small.
But my manager being nothing less than thorough, decided to go through cupboards, old and new, to check there weren’t any keys lurking anywhere, potentially hidden away for questionable purposes. The only set she found however, was old, clearly Victorian and massive. It was the sort of set that if you put it on a chatelaine, the lady who wore it would probably fall onto her face and not be able to get up again. No one had ever seen them before.
One of the keys looked large enough to knock an elephant out if necessary. It could have secured a dungeon. But while we had a storeroom in the basement which we called a dungeon, that was just because it was dark, damp and allegedly haunted, not because it had ever housed prisoners.
Fast forwarding three decades, my brain addled by trauma as I changed what felt like the millionth password, I remembered those Victorian keys and thought how much harder it would be to lose them than a modern set of keys or the same number of passwords. Also how much easier it would be to recognise a key with the twiddly bits in the middle as being for the cupboard under the stairs, than to recall the name of Great Aunt Ermintrude’s pet dragon to get into a website.
I wonder what happened to those keys. The manager locked them away because they were effectively government assets, because that’s how her mind works. I wanted to take them home and write stories about each one, because that’s how my mind works. But I didn’t because she was right and besides, it would have taken a handful of applications in triplicate before anyone let me have them, even if no one knew what they were for.
A few years later, the office shut, its work merged with another office’s and the building was sold off and turned into a restaurant.
And as I’ve written before, when the new owners took the building back to its former glory, a blocked up staircase leading down to the basement was discovered. I’d forgotten about the mysterious keys until recently but briefly wondered if they’d belonged to that, only there were far too many for one staircase, and actually, now I think about it – my manager swore she’d never come across them before the day of the key audit. So where had they been before that? And I never thought to ask what happened to those keys when the office closed.
Maybe they disappeared again for someone else to find one day.
After all, the new occupants think the basement’s haunted too.
Some truths are probably universal. Keys big or small or passwords: they’re all much the same. Perhaps in that building the ghost is eternally looking for their keys. And the keys are eternally playing hide and seek. It’s possible. It really was that sort of building.
Now – never mind all that. Just what was the name of Great Aunt Ermintrude’s dragon.
Words copyright 2023 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image: Vintage Victorian Style Golden Skeleton Keys with Centered Around a Silver Lock. Concepts of Unlocking Potential, Keys To Success Stock Photo – Image of protection, centered: 241595932 (dreamstime.com)