By Mehreen Ahmed

Eliza stood in front of her bathroom mirror and squeezed the end of a nearly empty tube of toothpaste. Between her thumb and her index finger, her fingernails turned an inconsistent color of white pink, the plumpness of the tip of her skin diminishing. Breathing short and tight, her lips were thinning like hard-pressed dry petals. She tried to push up some paste through the nozzle. It slid in and out, light and white, tantalizing the bristles of her hand-held toothbrush.

A decent amount came out after much effort and fell over the tip of the brush, leaving almost all of its bristles dry. She brushed her teeth, rinsed her mouth, and washed the toothbrush under the running water tap. She put it away in a glass by the sink and came outside into the garden with a scowl.

A bird chirped. It sat on the clothesline and pecked at the clothes, looking for food in the wrong place. A few bats hung under saggy, mega-jumbled electrical street wires. A few cotton masks airing on the clothesline had clown heads printed on them. One got unpegged and flew away in a sudden blast of wind. Eliza looked at it, but didn’t catch the vital mask. It landed on a morning’s bloom of an unfurled petal’s dew-drops.

The dawn had broken beautifully, but she sensed an ending closing in. She decided to visit her mother’s grave. The graveyard wasn’t far. She took a stool and walked over one block. She found the grave among hundreds, and sat down on the stool close to a grassy patch; her legs had splayed. She had a séance with her every morning; the good spirit, silently absorbing her spilled words like a ghost’s -diary. 

This morning, she was telling her how she’d been implicated in vicious office politics, which cut her out of a dream job she’d applied for. A promotion, she knew she would have certainly bagged. For she had far surpassed everyone in qualifications, with all the experiences for that position. But, no, she didn’t get it. “Mother,” Eliza spoke, “at the interview, they asked me all the wrong questions, and, after the interview and a few days of deliberation, this rejection letter arrived. I’m not sure how to take this, but the job was snitched, I think, by a mere 24 -year -old, without much qualifications; she got it.”

Eliza finished with a sigh, catching a dot of a potent black fly, mid-air, which had just pinched her nose on its tip; it itched as it flew away. No matter, she would not give up; not so fast.

Although she moped, she also hoped that bosses would come to their senses. They would smoke out the snitch. They had made a mistake in selecting the girl, who was not worthy of the position. They would then ask her to leave promptly, the position freed up for Eliza to fill in. She waited for the moment and counted her days. The numbers were perfect. They never deceived. No calls came.

After the séance, Eliza went to work. No one else had come in, yet. She was rummaging through her things on the table. Her coffee mug sat by the computer., sShe picked it up and walked into the kitchen to make herself a short black coffee. She heard shuffling sounds coming through the back office file room, adjacent to the coffee machine. All ears on the closed wooden oak, she heard the shuffle grow louder from behind. The full mug of coffee in one hand, her other, held the noddy knob, as she opened the door with a thrust. It had a squeaky hinge and a few character marks.

The room was large and it was semi-dark; on the far side, she saw something zap past like a flash of light through the back door. Knuckle-white and petrified, she stood a few jarring moments. She looked around the room and saw a filing cabinet, a drawer of which was slightly ajar. Her fingers clutched onto the mug like wet clinging hair. She took a file labeled “higher management position” out. The file only had a few hands full of papers relating to the job’s description.

Staff chats had alluded to the fact that there were others who were more deserving and better -qualified candidates. But Eliza hadn’t paid heed. She’d treated them as gossip memes, fantasy, churned out of a lame factory. 55 years of waiting, Eliza had been inching toward this dream, loading her resume with experiences and qualifications. There were no age barriers as far as she knew in the fine print of the contracts, implicitly stated — every aging staff was a tarnished statistic, who came with an expiry date, regardless of the staff’s mettle. Only, she hadn’t considered that this expiry date was applicable for this job as well. 

Indeed! A 24 -year -old girl’s resume would have looked pretty scarce, compared to those of the others. The ghost, was her guardian angel, Eliza’s mother and best friend, who had given her the mental support and a shoulder to cry on every time she was distraught from a failure in a school exam, or broken romance now, even in death, she was still with her, alerting her to something plush, information that was perhaps quite obvious; only she didn’t see it.

A fresh day was issued; another mask flew away in the bluster. She saw it on her way to the séance, but had not picked it up. She sat on her stool again at her mother’s grave and told her about the incident. How someone or something, a ghost, was leading her to the secret filing cabinet? But she found nothing there. She wondered what was going on.

Back in the office, she went early as usual. She heard the same shuffling of papers from the file room. She entered and walked up to the cabinet. The ghost lingered in the dark awhile. This time, Eliza turned on the light and opened the drawer all the way. She felt something touch her hair and give it a strong ruffle. The drawer nearly slid all the way out and down on the floor; she caught it and placed it gently. She found another folder here, but it was unlabelled. A shiver ran through her; a thin line of sweaty beads sat on her upper lip. She opened this secret file. It held all the staff’s biometrics, which was super confidential. 

There was a commotion outside of the door. Eliza quickly put everything back and came out. The office had gone into a snap shutdown. A senior staff member, Jane Rushmore, had become ill. An ambulance was waiting downstairs to take her away. Eliza remembered her from the interview panel. She stood in the passageway and let her through as she was wheeled out in a chair,; an oxygen mask on her face. Eliza saw through Ms. Rushmore’s glass office walls, the 24-year-old snitch going through her belongings. It looked suspicious; however, since there was a lockdown, the staff rushed out of the office block.

Eliza heard that after being taken into the hospital, Ms. Rushmore’s condition worsened and she had not made it through the night. But she was not the only one. Whoever had come in contact with her, all fell ill. Many of the younger staff had survived because of age; the many elderly others had not. The snitch’s job now hung in the balance; she’d raged when she had engaged the staff in a Zoom meeting that was held the next day.

Bodies were buried straightaway, Eliza lamented at the séance. Those who grieved for the departed couldn’t perform a proper ablution. They could neither be purified nor readied for divinity. Some were buried in mass-graves in caskets. Others were burnt in hollow baskets. Eliza described how a towering inferno rose over each funeral pyre,; long firewood, group-hugged each body within its crumbling prickly chips; in the throes of it, dismembered bodies looked, as though they were at the behest of a medieval Queen. Out of the ashes, some bones looked rock-solid, as the ashes were taken and spread across gardens and oceans. A ballpark figure of deaths was reported. No one stood tall but death; the formidable Queen of the heretics had drawn a trump and had aced, “Mother dearest,” was what Eliza had called her when she was on this living plain.

At night, she continued to commune. Her mother stood at the foot of her bed, looking down at her. She looked grim, slightly nonchalant. The spirit revealed lights, too trite of the foul play on the planet Earth. A portal had opened like a hologram; on a unique sphere called the fourth dimension, all Earth’s departed souls woke up. Eliza saw her bosses, too. Biometrics danced before her eyes through artificial intelligence. She even saw Data, the character from Star Trek. Disjointed glimpses were random, and they often faded, but they were dates of birth, nationality, names, fingerprints and iris which could compromise confidentiality of the staff.

The disembodied sprite, the entity she communed with, her own mother, then somersaulted in colored Borealis; in a primordial whale song—the lyrics of the deep blue seas—it spoke about what was unheard of. That after death, the first thing it did was to stare at a seemingly innocuous globe. It watched the manifold plays, of playing and being played, continued to be hatched and staged under a blue canopied sandpit. The sprites then left without a trail.

Séance was the handmaiden to unveiling unsolved mysteries. Mother readily dissipated in the night sky. Eliza thought how time had eluded the players of all times, of its own sly endgames, that it was deployed to play everyone big time; who played whom in these games? The mundane bickering, spun out of the threads of life, were largely controlled by the unseen Moirai. 

Existence, after all, was a passing reality. Who wrote this narrative? Billions of years in processing, these metamorphosed fossils were; an illusion, a conundrum of plays, full-on deadly swings of lies, of lures, and of profiteering; love giveth and taketh away in death. Only the blind seers had perceived; never the queens nor the kings of the day. Alas! When was a full moon ever sighted from the surface of the Moon itself? Only from this mortal world did its beacon glimmer; Hamlet had caught the king’s conscience in his play. 

What came out of the séance was the half-formed pensées, the machine-character Data, and the biometrics. That was all. But she had to flesh it out, the alleged crime to what this breach was going to do? Why would that file be hiding there? Why was it removed in the first place and not put back with the others? Why would someone try to hide the biometrics of valuable data? Ah, yes., Data the machine, triggered a thought—a data manipulation rort? How and why? All these questions were buzzing in Eliza’s head. They had to be really good hackers to do so digitally as well. The records there were well protected by strong passwords for the almighty precious intel, unless someone was trying to use the threat to an end. Maybe a data breach? That was it! This led to the fact that blackmail was a possibility for money, or for something else?  By far, the girl’s missing links, the puzzle pieces, fell right in place to secure the job she had not deserved.

The snitch had perhaps stolen all the staff’s biometrics, and hid it there, so no one could ever find the file. Worst case, she would be charged with file misplacement only, without any hint of theft or forgery. Clever, she then blackmailed the panel for a serious data breach of the biometrics; she even found additional information about some of the interviewer’s secrets, tantamount to bribery or perjury, threatening to reveal personal information. That was how Eliza worked it out in her mind. It was up to her now, how she wanted to expose this rotten play: go public; to the police or give the girl enough rope? Either way, this surely made Eliza’s day.

One thought on “The Handmaiden

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s