The Archivist by Estelle Birdy

The Archivist, leather satchel in hand, picked his way through the tables and chairs to his spot in the corner of the terrace, overhanging the river. Nodding to Raul, the waiter, he took comfort in this, his daily pre-work habit. The sun was already warming the glass table top as he leaned his weight onto it, propping his oak walking stick against its edge and finally settling himself into the yellow cushioned chair.

There were few people in this morning, all of whom he recognised as regulars but did not know. Each person turned and smiled or blinked their acknowledgement of The Archivist. Evidently, there were no watchers in today—a good thing. Although he assumed that the watchers were never there for him, he did not care for the atmosphere their occasional presence created.

Tuesday. Two eggs on a Tuesday. Raul would ensure that they were perfectly poached. A little wobbly with no ragged edges. Perfect little suns in perfectly rounded soft ivory frames. The Archivist shook out the pea-green linen napkin, one of the stock retained behind the counter, for his morning use. He placed it neatly on his knees, then tucked the large paper napkin into the collar of his loose white grandfather shirt. These days, his belly, rather than his lap, was the most likely landing place for egg yolk, should it miss its target. He didn’t like to risk spoiling the green of his linen napkins with the yellow of his eggs. A selection of the morning’s national and international newspapers lay neatly folded on the table. He glanced at the front pages of the nationals, another glorious event at which the President attended; man of the people. The Archivist found little worth reading in the newspapers these days. Unfolding a broadsheet, he skipped straight to the arts pages near the back. A glowing review of the current exhibition at the museum—another of the Poet’s retrospectives—The Prison Revisited. ‘A daring and intimate look inside the artistic process of The Poet, this exhibition offers us a tiny window on his world. We must be forever grateful to The Museum of the Nation for allowing the people unparalleled access to the documents and records, which laid bare the notorious activities of the ancien regime and inspired The Poet’s extraordinary collection, The Prison Series.’

Although fully aware of the unlikelihood of anything other than a glowing review appearing anywhere, The Archivist was quietly pleased. He had curated the exhibition himself and had found the work surprisingly draining. Collating documents of horror—the old regime had been nothing if not meticulous in their record keeping—was difficult even for those who, like him, had seen these documents many times before. The Reports, which had inspired The Poet’s essay poem of the same name, had been particularly harrowing to work with. While preparing the exhibition, he had, night after night, dreamt of their blue-lined boxes listing the prisoner’s number, methods used, time tolerated, results obtained. His jaw tightened momentarily, as memories flooded him. He turned once more to seek solace in the platitudes of the newspaper’s review.

Returned to the present, he sighed and looked around the terrace. In the opposite corner, a dark-haired woman in a frilled scarlet dress, sat alone. She became a blurry vision of colour, light and shade. He held the impression rather than the actuality of her inside his head, shut his eyes and tilted his face towards the warmth of the sun. Alone, waiting for someone, perhaps. Perhaps not. He looked again, trying to discern the details of her but was unable to hold onto the threads. This coming and going of the edges of things, the floating stars and blurring, which had begun some months before, was not without its pleasures. A general softening of things, though possibly spelling the end of his working life, was to be welcomed in some ways.

Staring out on the muddy river, with its rocks and rapids, he felt calmed by the knowledge that the almost still, dark pool lay beneath the terrace. Even the most powerful rivers have their calm spaces. A kingfisher danced along, flashes of blue and orange, briefly landing on the bamboo at the terrace’s edge, allowing itself to sway and bob with the light breeze that easily moved the new young shoots. His vision cleared, The Archivist and the bird eyed each other.

Over his eggs and coffee, he thought about the day ahead, much like any other, apart from the new box. Delivered by hand, addressed to The Archivist himself, its provenance unknown. He didn’t allow himself to expect much from it. There hadn’t been a new box of The Poet’s documents for quite some time, and all recent materials had been of little import. Thank-you notes left at The Poet’s favourite restaurants, endless flyers for The Poet’s readings and opening nights, the printed text of Epic. Most of it went in the shredder: duplication, so much duplication. One garish copy of a flyer was enough to document a graphic designer’s lack of taste. This box and whatever it held, he felt sure, would be his last. The last of The Poet’s life to be catalogued and displayed, at least by The Archivist himself. Being the keeper of the flame for The Poet had been everything to him, had made him almost as famous as The Poet himself, but now he was tired of endless record keeping. The scars on his leg began to ache, and he leaned down to rub them — such a long time since they had spoken up. The little fragments of metal still lodged there whispered to him of bygone terrors and oncoming fears.

The Poet, now gone five years, had humbly donated all of his papers and documents—every draft, every bus ticket—to the nation and into The Archivist’s hands. And he and his team had worked tirelessly to do justice to this man, this artist, who had healed the country and stitched it back together with his beautiful words. The newspapers in front of The Archivist bore testimony to this new prosperity, the new togetherness, that had taken hold of the nation. The woman in the red dress was living proof, free to thrive and to choose to eat alone on this beautiful morning, his own plain outfit a relic of what was now known only as the Hard Times, when virtue was in plainness and colour had no place. The Archivist had always favoured beige, but now it was publicly considered a sign of the (very fashionable) humility he shared with his friend and subject, The Poet. Breakfast finished, he rose to leave the cafĂ©, accepting acknowledgements as he passed by tables. His bills were paid for him, on a monthly basis, by the central authorities— another boon of the new prosperity.

Close to his workplace, he paused, as he always did, to salute, no more than a mere tip of his hat, the giant statue of The Poet on the mall that led up to the museum’s entrance. The fountains outside the gate had not yet been switched on, and he preferred them this way: still and calm. Making his way down to his workshop, as he called it, in the basement, the large red box started to play more on his mind. Did its unusual silk fabric covering speak of hidden treasures within? Briefly, his heart raced, as it had in the old days when a new find was anticipated. Something that could teach us more about The Poet and consequently, more about ourselves, as The Archivist had said himself, rather poetically he thought, in his many lectures on the subject. It had been too long–there had been too many flyers, and it was hard to imagine anything new arising from the red box. He scolded himself for his momentary excitement. It was unfounded and would only lead to disappointment. He prided himself on his objectivity, had been publicly honoured for providing the nation with an impartial view of The Poet, in fact. Under the circumstances, he could hardly have done otherwise. In those early days, immediately after the horror, they had become known to each other as objective professionals; one, the artist who could make the nation whole again, the other, the designated recorder of the artist’s endeavour. It was hard not to become friends with The Poet and it was equally hard not to feel honoured to be counted amongst his friends. He passed beneath the enormous portrait of The Poet in his familiar, thoughtful pose. A softly worn and creased face, his gaze lucid but restless. Staff from other areas in the museum bustled by, each of them saluting The Archivist, however casually, as he passed. Down the corridors, he steadily limped past framed copies of The Poet’s letters. His correspondence with those who were once called dissidents, with artists and, latterly, with the great and the good of the world’s stage was well known to everyone.

Copies of his letters adorned school classrooms, entire fields of study had been founded upon these national treasures. In various styles of calligraphy, Epic, The Poem, as it was now known, was printed directly onto the walls in many areas of the museum. “Perhaps the one true poem,” as the President had remarked at some rally or other, Epic had become almost a proclamation of the new nation. Children were bound to recite it before class every morning, its first line, “Oh where shall we start, you and I…,” ready for quotation on every good citizen’s lips. The Archivist had been unsure about this fashion for quoting The Poem here, there and everywhere. He had heard that one could procure hand-printed silk wall-coverings of The Poem. At quite a pretty price, he felt sure.

Nearing the workshop door, the final enlarged framed print was of the most famous of all, the letter that signified all that was great about The Poet; the Letter of Gratitude from The Prisoner. And this was the only one that The Archivist paused at every time he passed. Not typed but written in The Prisoner’s own distinctive hand, it had been published in every newspaper, national and local, in this manner, at her request. Her script, mostly neat and separate letters, gave way to cursive where she used ‘gr’ and ‘ch’ and in these, she delicately curved her lettering as if to give a secret hint of an artist beneath the ideologue. “My heartfelt gratitude for your intercession… I am so grateful… with much gratitude.”

On the occasion when The Archivist had met with The Prisoner, after her release, she had reiterated her gratitude to The Poet and confirmed that, yes, she had written the letter, but no, she had not known The Poet personally. When The Archivist had quietly enquired how she knew that The Poet had anything to do with her eventual release from prison and the declaration that she was no longer an enemy of the people, she had stopped and stared into The Archivist’s eyes. “Sometimes we just know things, don’t you think?” and then she had smiled and looked away, as she poured tea for them both, the scent of lilies heavy in the air, the ceiling fan flickering light across her face. He had sat back to study the details of her. Gamine had been the term used in her younger days, he believed. Now, her grey-flecked chestnut hair was loosely tied at the nape of her neck, a crisp white shirt tucked into well-cut trousers, tiny pearl earrings her only adornment—there was something of the ballerina about her. Old money. He had followed her graceful movements, her long slender fingers curling around the handle of the silver teapot, and had been startled to see what he should have noticed the moment they had met. Her last two fingers on her left hand were missing, cut off at their base. He must have made a sound because she had looked up and had caught his gaze. Her look had challenged him to ask, just ask, but he had refrained, looked away. She had sighed at his necessary lack of courage and had returned to their subject.

“Perhaps I was told of his intercession; I don’t remember. Sometimes it is worth more to forget.”

The Poet himself had neither confirmed nor denied his good work in this regard and had maintained his silence on the subject of The Prisoner, no matter how much late-night Armagnac he and The Archivist had shared. His courageous kindness in winning her freedom became the stuff of myth and she, a minor artist and writer before her imprisonment, was never again in the public eye, opting to seclude herself on her stud farm far from the capital. Her detention was now to be viewed in context. During The Transition and the Hard Times that followed, there was no room for those who spoke too loudly against actions that were needed to restore stability.

He reached the heavy double doors that signalled the entrance to his kingdom. As he began to tap this week’s code into the keypad, he bent lower, as always, to peer through the tiny rectangular window. The window, no more than the size of a large chocolate bar, offered the only outside point of view on the archive within. He had often wondered who had placed it there and for what purpose. Through it, there was very little to be seen—the hallway and the cavern room of the archive, an occasional passing archivist. Each time he looked through it, on the way out and the way in, he enjoyed the momentary fear at the thought that one day, his gaze might be met by the eyes of someone else. The locks undone, he pushed through the doors and chimed,

“Good morning, Eloise!” at his scrubbed-faced assistant already stationed at the front desk.

“Good morning, Sir!/”

“No Sirs allowed! Equal and Free!”

“Equal and Free!”

And thus their morning ritual began. Others would arrive as the day wore on, some working on exhibitions, others re-cataloguing old material, but it was he and Eloise who controlled everything.

“I shall be getting a start on the red box now,” he said, raising his eyebrows in mock drama as Eloise pulled out a pair of clean white cotton gloves.

Taking the gloves, he entered the glass box, his workshop. Two plain white tables and two straight-backed chairs, its only furniture. Its one pristine white-painted wall marked by the ubiquitous Epic, naturally. White downlights glared from every angle, banishing any hint of shadow. In this white room, the red box lay like a beacon. He touched its edges, a gold trim, slightly frayed, wound its way around the lid. Carefully, he eased it upwards and off.

And so it began—another copy of his first collection, another poster. Three folders, stuffed with well-worn pieces of paper, big and small. Gingerly, his gloved hands set aside tickets to a dance in a far-flung nowhere town in the East of the country. Photocopies of official documents, visas, identity cards—all the usual material. Photographs now, a copy of The Poet’s mugshot with his arrest papers—charged as a dissident in the then-neighbouring, now-annexed country. How quickly one can become respectable when the time is right. More photographs, older ones, some in black and white. The Archivist took up his magnifying glass. A group of smiling young people, The Poet, maybe in his early 20s, posing at the centre, his arm around the shoulders of a young woman, her head thrown back in riotous laughter. The Archivist turned it over. In smeared ink, ‘The Swamp Jazz Club, July 19’, the rest of the date illegible. He allowed himself a small smile as he felt the warm spread of the old excitement course through him. He loved the stories that a photograph told, that a thousand documents couldn’t. And he knew The Swamp very well, had played there himself. The West Country, his homeland, the land of wet heat, fireflies and the loosest, loosest jazz, filled his mind. He felt a hunger rise in him. He carefully gathered the five photographs and limped to the second table in the room, spreading them out for later inspection.

Returning to the box, he had to reach to the very bottom, where a large folded poster was jammed. The partially visible picture of a large blue eye made it instantly recognisable as the promotional poster for The Prison Series international book tour that The Poet had undertaken a few years before his death. He tried to force his fingers down the side of the poster to pull it up through the box but was frustrated by their thickness. He reached in again and tried to force his little fingers down at the corners, jamming his tongue out between his lips to help. He pushed and pulled to no avail; it just wouldn’t budge. Grabbing his stick, he marched out to Eloise’s desk, took hold of the bejewelled brass letter opener he had given her for her birthday last year and said,

“We’re going to need a bigger boat.”

Eloise smiled up at him,

“Need an extra pair of hands?”

He raised his eyebrows and she returned to her work, laughing quietly to herself, as he walked back to his glass box. The first pass was always his and his alone. Lips pursed, he determinedly plunged the knife down between the thick folded edge of the poster and the side of the box. He pulled and nudged it sideways, creating space until he could just about get his fingers down. Slightly damaging the edges, he coaxed the poster up through the box. He unfolded it just in case it was more than he had expected. How silly to be angry with a poster. Setting it aside, he peered into the bottom of the box and there, taped down, lay a small black notebook.

He carefully pulled back the crossed masking tape and held the notebook in his hands. He sat down, exhausted from his bout with the poster. His vision blurred and he paused and waited for it to clear, then opened the notebook. On the first page, he found a list of numbers, an account of some kind. Adding, subtracting, doodles. A mini-version of the hundreds of The Poet’s journals held in the archive. He stroked The Poet’s familiar script affectionately. He turned the pages slowly; the first pass was always the most enjoyable. Arriving at the middle of the book, he found a neatly folded swatch of bright orange fabric, covered in tiny neat handwriting, its threads fraying at the edges. He turned it over, beneath the writing on the other side, the black print of a prison number. The Archivist paused and took up the magnifying glass once more, recognising the words immediately.

‘Oh, where shall we start, you and I…’

He glanced up at the same words written on the wall, as he laid the fabric with its many beautiful and all-too-familiar words, written in her distinctive hand, onto the table. His mouth dry, he tried to swallow back the growing lump in his throat. Of course. The Prison and these notorious orange uniforms had been used by the new regime during The Transition, when The Prisoner had been held, for the sake of freedom, as an enemy of the people. She had been released several years before The Poet had given the gift of The Poem to the nation though. The timeline of such things was precisely recorded in The Archivist’s mind.

He leaned back in his chair, interlocked fingers to his lips, and began to rock lightly to and fro. Now was the time for objectivity. He looked again at the familiar flourishes of her handwriting. How could she have got this out of The Prison? There was not a shred of evidence that they even knew each other personally. None. He had searched. He had asked again. She had been suitably enigmatic, while The Poet had emphatically denied it. It was quite possibly a later transcription. Perhaps she had managed to keep some fabric from her time in The Prison? There were multiple alternative explanations. He sat back again and rubbed his brow as the room became a blur once more.

What to do? He leaned to soothe the, by now, burning scars on his leg. He would call her. There was nothing else for it. He would simply call and ask. He waited until Eloise and the others left for lunch. It was not unusual for him to stay behind in the closed hour, especially when something new had to be examined. Once they were gone, he snatched the walking stick, found his address book and picked up the receiver. He tapped in the first three digits, then stopped. This was not a call he would want anyone hearing. He stood, the receiver in hand, listening for listeners. Resigned he put it back to rest. Taking his address book, he picked up the satchel and limped back into the glass box. Carefully he re-folded the orange swatch, placed it in the middle of his address book, then tucked the book right at the bottom and securing the straps extra tightly, placed the satchel at his feet.

When Eloise returned, he was seated back inside the box, magnifying glass in hand, scrutinising the photos.

“I have your lunch here. Raul sent it back with me. Anything of note?” she said glancing at the satchel.

“Not much, I’m afraid, a few photos, but we can’t expect to see much to surprise these days, can we? Yet we must persist, there’s a legacy to maintain.”

A grin spread across his face and he started to hum Miles Davis’ “So What”, his head nodding the rhythm, as he stared through the glass at the blurred photos beneath, no longer able to distinguish one face from another.

Estelle Birdy is a writer and poet, mother and yoga teacher, living and working in Dublin, Ireland. She is currently completing a Masters in Creative Writing at University College Dublin. She is writing a novel—an intercultural story of a group of young working-class men set against the backdrop of post-recession Dublin. Her work has appeared online in the literary magazine, The Bog Man's Cannon, Cunning Hired Knaves and My Second Spring and in print in The Irish Times, Sunday Independent and Ms.Chief Magazine.