‘That’s what they said. And they can’t fix it!’
‘It’s a twelve hundred pound laptop, for heaven’s sake. It’s hardly been used. Of course they can fix it. They’re just not trying.’
The young assistant frowned nervously. ‘I’m sorry, Penelope, but the shop agreed with Jim in IT. They can’t erase it and they say it isn’t their fault because it was in perfect working order when you bought it. They said you’ll have to send it back to the makers.’
‘Which will take weeks. Do they know who it belongs to? Did you tell them that I need it now for my HARDtalk interview?’
‘Yes, of course.’ The assistant looked away.
Professor Penelope Chertson sighed loudly. The wretched girl had allowed herself to be fobbed off; she was as hopeless as the college’s technology department. Grabbing a file of correspondence, she thrust it into the assistant’s hand. ‘Here, do something useful with this,’ she snapped.
The girl hurried from the room.
Penelope sat down at her desk and considered the non-functioning ensemble of metal and plastic. She was a clever, successful woman, but she knew she’d made an elementary mistake. She’d spent a weekend making notes on her new computer without making a back-up copy. God knows how the machine had picked up the damned virus, but, logic insisted, as it had, there must be some way of removing it without having to send it off to Limerick or wherever it was they assembled these things. Someone must know how to do it.
She was still absorbed with her problem, when, carrying the laptop, she arrived at the large converted house in London’s Belsize Park in which she owned the ground floor flat. Normally she sorted through the day’s letters in the communal hall, dropping the flyers into the junk mail basket behind the front door. But, on this day, irritated with the world, she just wanted to get home.
And it was in this way that the pale blue card from the ComputaKama Company was carried into her flat, although it wasn’t until a couple of hours later, when it slipped from between a gas bill and one from American Express, that she discovered it.
‘Relax. No more computer problems,’ the flyer read. ‘Lost files recovered, hard disc washed, viruses quarantined. Call ComputaKama now. 24 hour service.’
Her first instinct was to tear it up. She was a university teacher and the bastardised spelling of the word computer irritated her. No wonder half the students she was expected to enlighten these days were practically sub-literate.
But she had a problem. She needed those notes. She looked at her watch. It was already almost eight-thirty. Did ComputaKarma really offer a 24 hour service? She picked up her phone.
Manish Bandoghat was sitting by himself in a branch of Pizza Express in Kentish Town and reading a book about the Tower of London when his mobile vibrated. The caller was Hari, his boss at ComputaKarma. Manish had only worked there for a few weeks, having spotted an advertisement for an IT technician in a newsagent’s window. He’d been in England for less than two months, and he was finding it a lonely country.
‘I’ve had an urgent call from a customer. Her laptop has a virus. You told me you were very good with viruses. Right?’ Hari said.
‘I believe so.’
‘Well, the customer is waiting now. I’ll tell her you’re on your way.’
Manish finished his pizza and put away his travel guide. Then, with his little bag of computer tools slung over his shoulder, he set off for Belsize Park.
‘The thing is,’ Penelope explained, as she showed the young man into her study, ‘I’m making a very important appearance on television on Friday, and all my preparation is locked inside this stupid machine. And I just haven’t the time to begin again. So…’ She held her hands out in a gesture part way between supplication and desperation.
Manish nodded. Instantly purposeful, he was already plugging the computer into the mains. Then, opening his bag, he took out a key ring from which hung half a dozen memory sticks and pushed one into a USB port.
For a few moments Penelope considered him as he worked. In his jeans and short sleeved shirt, he looked no older than some of her first year students. But she rarely saw such intensity in their expressions. Nor did she often encounter such shyness as the boy carefully avoided making eye contact. ‘Well, I’ll let you get on,’ she said. And, picking up some essays that needed marking, she left the study.
Only then did Manish turn to watch her, noticing for the first time the flare at the hem of her black skirt that fell against her calf high boots, and the tight, fitted black jacket she was wearing. He’d been surprised when she’d answered the door. Hari had told him that the customer was a professor, but professors in Manish’s mind were old men with wiry glasses and sticking-out hair. This professor was…well, beautiful, so feminine that her closeness to him in this tiny room, coupled with the fragrance of her scent, had made him feel uneasy. And what was it she’d said about going on television? She must be famous, too.
He looked around the study and its shelves of books by writers of whom he’d never heard. One bright pink hardback caught his eye – From Fertility Totems to Feminism: The Function of Sex In A Post Industrial Society by Penelope Chertson.
What was that supposed to be about? He returned to his work.
‘So, did you mend it?’
The young technician looked up from the forest of white symbols that now decorated the laptop screen. ‘Not quite. But I know what the problem is. This is a very mischievous virus. A new one.’
‘But it can be fixed?’
‘Oh yes, but it will involve taking everything off the computer, dealing with the problem, and then putting everything back on.’
He looked at his watch. ‘Unfortunately it’s getting very late. Nearly eleven o’clock. Perhaps if I could take the computer with me and work at home, I’m sure I could have it functioning perfectly by tomorrow.’
‘And my work on it…that won’t be lost?’
‘Oh, no. I will take great care.’
Penelope hesitated. He was very young. ‘You know a lot about viruses, do you?’
He smiled now. ‘In Hyderabad my colleagues used to say I was the Virus Wizard.’
‘The Virus Wizard! Well then!’ She wanted to laugh. He looked so anxious to please. And it occurred to her how very nice looking he was with that flop of black hair, dark lips and such long eyelashes. It was possible, of course, that he’d take the laptop and she’d never see it again. But her television appearance was drawing closer. And what value was a computer, if it didn’t work?
‘All right. Take it. You’ll come back tomorrow night?’
‘Oh yes. I won’t let you down.’
‘I’m sure you won’t.’ And she beamed half threateningly the way she did with recalcitrant students.
Before Manish had come to England he’d imagined himself living with friends in a nice apartment just around the corner from a branch of Starbucks, from where he would set about building his career. It hadn’t worked out like that. His home was a Kentish Town bedsitter with a washbasin, a bed, a table and not much more. His only possession, and indeed companion, was a computer that Hari at ComputaKarma had told him he could have if he could fix it. He had fixed it, after which he’d immediately hacked into the Wi-Fi used by the furniture shop next door, copying their encryption code into the small notebook he kept for such purposes.
‘Penelope Chertson,’ he typed into Google the moment he got back, and then sat in astonishment as he ran through the hundreds of websites in which the professor’s name appeared. She’d done so much, studied and taught at three different universities, written many books and papers and been on several impressive sounding committees.
On Wikipedia he found her biography. Only now did he frown. Could she really be 46? And in his mind’s eye he saw again that unlined face, and the dark hair that seemed to bounce on to her shoulders. In that big apartment, with its varnished wooden floors, Turkish rugs and framed paintings hanging on the walls, she was the most exciting person he’d ever met. And, fixing himself a cup of coffee, he opened her laptop and set to work.
‘Do you mind my asking how old you are?’
More like twenty-one, Penelope thought. But what did it matter? As good as his word the young man had cleared the laptop of the virus, and, at her request, was now copying the notes he’d recovered on to a USB for safety.
They were once again in her study, Manish sitting at her desk, Penelope standing behind him, a glass of wine in her hand. The wine she’d brought for him was untouched.
‘And why did you come to England? Surely there are jobs for computer wizards in India.’
‘Oh, yes. Many. But it can be quite difficult to get one unless you have the right qualifications. I thought if I came to London and studied more I would have better opportunities when I went home.’
‘So you’re studying here?’
Manish frowned. ‘The college I enrolled in was a disappointment. I was misled by their advertisement.’
‘Ah!’ She didn’t pursue it. London was filled with young people from overseas on student visas. Some studied, some didn’t, and some found that they’d been gulled by a fancy name on a bogus college brochure.
Finishing his work, Manish pulled out a pad of ComputaKarma invoices, and began to fill one in.
She watched him as he wrote. It was a reversal: tonight he’d been watching her. She’d been flattered. Taking the invoice from him, she took out her Visa card and paid the bill online.
‘I don’t think you’ll have any more problems,’ Manish said as she finished. ‘But if you do, just call us, and…’
She interrupted. ‘You didn’t drink your wine.’
He thought about her all the way back down the hill to Kentish Town, reflecting on how friendly she’d become, how she’d wanted to know about him, whether he had brothers and sisters and a girl friend. ‘Yes, yes and unfortunately no,’ he’d answered, which had made her laugh. He liked it when she laughed. It was as if she was rewarding him for amusing her.
He’d had just the one glass of wine and been leaving when she’d surprised him. ‘Perhaps you should give me your mobile number in case I need to get hold of you urgently some time,’ she’d said. He’d given it to her.
He’d downloaded a picture of her from Google the previous night, a portrait found on her publisher’s website, and copied it to his camera phone. Now, before he went to bed, he stared at her image again and smiled to himself. This clever, beautiful, famous woman was his friend.
Penelope had a busy week as she prepared for her HARDtalk interview. As well as a couple of lectures, a class and some tutorials, there was also a meeting of the college academic committee to attend and an article to be finished for the World Journal of Anthropology. Then she had to study the notes that Manish had rescued for her and to mentally rehearse her arguments.
She was at an important moment in her career. The job of deputy director would soon be vacant. Get that and who knew where she might go next, University College or the London School of Economics, perhaps. But, for that to happen, it was crucial for her to raise her public profile. Colleagues made disparaging comments about celebrity academics who courted television producers ‘wanting to be famous’. But she didn’t. Public recognition helped. Look at David Starkey and Simon Schama. Both were universally admired. She wanted public recognition, fame, call it what you will. It opened doors.
Manish didn’t own a television, but he watched Penelope’s HARDtalk performance on his computer through the BBC’s iPlayer. Actually he watched it several times. He didn’t entirely follow her argument that non-governmental agencies could sometimes disrupt social cohesion, but the verve with which she talked thrilled him. She was so clever. Admittedly he felt a pang of jealousy when she smiled at the television interviewer a little too much, almost flirting with him, he thought, but he quickly put that down to her professionalism in disarming the fellow. Besides he was sure the interviewer didn’t know her as a friend, as he did.
Work had been dull in the days since he’d seen her, as he’d been mainly in the back room of ComputaKarma upgrading customers’ old machines to enable them to run new programmes. So, when Penelope telephoned him two days after her television appearance, wondering if he had time to help with a new presentation that she was preparing, he was at her flat within thirty minutes.
It was a warm Sunday in May, and, as she buzzed him in, he was aware of a flicker of excitement.
‘I’m in here, Manish,’ she called as he entered.
He looked down the short corridor of the flat. A door was open through which he could see a large unmade bed, the sheets half pulled back. Then, there she was, striding barefoot towards him, wearing a faded pair of men’s jeans that looked too long for her and a yellow T-shirt that was just a little too small.
‘It’s really good of you to come on your day off,’ she greeted. ‘I’ve been asked to give a talk at the Royal Geographical Society in two weeks time and only just realised that I know nothing about Powerpoint. In the old days you just gave your slides to a chap with a carousel and projector, but now…!’
She lifted her hands in helplessness and he noticed that the shade of lacquer on her finger nails matched that on her toe nails.
‘Powerpoint isn’t complicated…’ he began.
‘Perhaps not for you, but I have to choose between hundreds of photographs and graphs and get them in order, so I need an expert.’ And she smiled at him.
It wasn’t difficult work, making a file about a West London street gang, but progress was slow as Penelope, a perfectionist, was apt to frequently change her mind. But, as they sat together in front of the laptop, it occurred to Manish that today he wasn’t a computer technician, he was a professor’s assistant. He liked that.
On one occasion Penelope fetched them both a drink and a sandwich, and on another she went into another room for a book she needed, and each time she touched his shoulders as she squeezed past his chair. He liked that, too.
They worked together all afternoon, but were nowhere nearly finished when at six she announced that they would have to stop as she had a lecture to prepare for the following day. ‘Perhaps, if you aren’t doing anything, you might like to come again tomorrow night?’ she suggested at the door.
She knew very well what she was doing, Penelope reflected, after he’d left. No matter how the boy tried to disguise it, the way he froze whenever she accidentally touched him, and it was never an accident, or looked quickly away if he thought she’d caught him looking at her breasts, and she always did catch him, he wasn’t able to disguise that he was beguiled by her. And she couldn’t help but enjoy the attention.
She was, of course, old enough to be his mother. Well…?
For years she’d watched male colleagues as they allowed themselves to be courted by the attentions of winsome young female students, before the inevitable rash of affairs would break out, usually in the Spring term. It was against college rules, but it happened, especially in the arts faculty, where, inexplicably, the dullest of middle-aged men were renowned for bagging the loveliest of girls.
The reverse, however, was rare, boy students, almost universally more gauche than the girls, rarely being seen as objects of desire by women lecturers. And by comparison with them, in his humble, young, techie way, Manish was, without realising it, almost beautiful.
Manish was late on the Monday evening, Hari having asked him to do a job for an accountant friend in Highgate, and, afraid that Penelope would be disappointed in him, he ran all the way from Belsize Park Tube station, arriving at the flat quite breathless.
‘Silly boy,’ she laughed, as she welcomed him. It was a warm evening and she was wearing a low-cut floral summer dress, her arms bare, a turquoise chain of stones at her neck, sandals on her feet. ‘There’s no hurry. Do you like ravioli?’
‘Pasta. I bought a meal for two at Sainsburys. I thought you might be hungry. I can’t have you starving to death while you’re helping me, can I.’ And she guided him into the kitchen.
Every time they met now he felt more relaxed, as, when they went to work, she teased him if he made a rare mistake, or stayed his hand on the computer mouse when he was about to change the image on the screen before she was ready.
On this night they didn’t work for very long. Her mind, he could tell, wasn’t on it. At last, as they struggled to find the exact graph she wanted, she shook her head. ‘Let’s forget it for tonight, Manish. It can wait.’ Then, leaning into him, she pressed her lips to his cheek.
It had never occurred to her that he might be a virgin, though she began to wonder almost as soon as they kissed, and was certain as they began to undress each other – he dawdling, afraid, she practical, encouraging. It was, she realised, a new experience for both of them: she’d never been to bed with a virgin before. But then it was a long time since she’d been to bed with someone as young as Manish, too. And that had its compensations.
‘You never told me how you became a virus wizard?’ she asked as they rested between rounds.
‘I can’t really remember,’ he said. ‘When I was ten I began helping my uncle in his computer shop in Hyderabad, and very soon I just seemed to know what to do.’
She understood. The boy’s gift had come naturally to him. Not one for self-analysis, he’d never thought to question it. ‘A useful talent,’ she said. ‘One day you’ll own your own software company in Bangalore and be a billionaire.’
He gigged. ‘Perhaps.’ And then fell silent.
‘You can ask me questions, too,’ she said after a while. ‘It’s permitted.’
‘Well, there is one thing. I keep wondering why a beautiful, wonderful woman like you is not yet married.’
She smiled to herself, but she didn’t answer.
And soon the boy made love to her once more, while she had sex with him.
For Manish every second of the day was filled with anticipation as on the Thursday and again at the weekend he made the trip to Belsize Park to sit at the computer until desire overcame them both.
Normally he was the one who dozed off for a few moments after making love, but on the Sunday evening, noticing that Penelope’s eyes were closed, he allowed himself the luxury of staring at her body, as she lay on her side on top of the white sheet, her black hair on the pillow, one hand beneath her face. She’s perfect, he thought, just perfect. And, climbing from the bed, he felt in the pocket of his jeans for his mobile phone.
He was kneeling alongside the bed, staring at her through the camera’s viewfinder, when she half-opened her eyes. He pressed the shutter.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked, suddenly frowning.
‘Taking a picture. I want to keep you like this for ever.’ For a moment he was afraid she might be angry. ‘It’s all right?’
He passed her the phone and she stared at the photograph on the display panel.
Finally she smiled. ‘You’ve made me look like Nevermore.’
‘‘Never…more?’ Never more what?’
She pulled herself up, resting on one elbow. ‘Nevermore is a famous painting by an artist called Gauguin. Nevermore was the name of a girl in Tahiti he painted. She was lying on her bed just like this.’
Manish looked at the photograph. ‘And she was as beautiful as you?’
‘A little bit younger.’ And Penelope laughed to herself.
She should, perhaps, have been annoyed, but in truth she was thrilled that the boy would even want to photograph her. She’d always been proud of her body, though ripening as it now was, and she remembered the only other occasion she’d been photographed naked. It had been in Yugoslavia when she’d been on holiday with a student boy friend. They’d broken up before they’d got home and she’d never seen the developed shots. If they’d ever been developed. Boots could be a bit funny about nudity in those days.
Manish stared at the painting of Nevermore in wonder. He’d never been in an art gallery before, but, on discovering through the internet where the Gauguin picture was hanging, he’d taken the Tube to the Courtauld Institute of Art in Central London during his lunch hour. At first, when entering such a grand old building, he’d been intimidated by history. But, now, here she was, Nevermore, almost luminous on a wall by a window, reclining in an almost identical position to that taken by Penelope the previous night. What a coincidence that had been. Or was it a sign of something more?
Stepping closer to examine the picture better, he peered at the two women in conversation behind the bed, then the brightly coloured bird seeming to watch from the window and the lemon pillow on which the girl’s head was resting. Penelope’s pillows were square and sparkling white. But it was Nevermore herself who entranced him, the dark hair on the pillow, and the unembarrassed confidence in her body. Her skin was darker than Penelope’s, yet it looked so familiar.
He bought a postcard of the painting in the gallery’s gift shop on his way out, then hurried back to work.
The Powerpoint file had still needed a little tidying when he’d left Penelope on the Sunday evening, so he’d copied it to a memory stick to take home. Now, as he ate his take-away, bed-sit dinner, he went through it one last time. Finally satisfied, he closed the file, took out his mobile phone, looked fondly at the image of the naked Penelope that was now permanently on the display panel, and laid it on his small table alongside the postcard of Nevermore. Then switching on his computer and logging into Photoshop he set to work. He’d never felt so happy.
Penelope spent much of the following afternoon in a bruising heads of faculties meeting. It wasn’t usually easy when budgets had to be cut, but anthropology did well. So when at seven thirty she found herself leaving the college with some colleagues who’d taken her side, she found herself inviting them back to Belsize Park for supper. You never know, she told herself, they might be useful again sometime.
They were all out of the taxi and about to make their way up the garden path when Manish appeared, dropping down in front of her from the garden wall on which he’d been waiting.
‘Hello.’ His face puckered in delight.
Penelope stopped abruptly.
‘I’ve got something for you,’ he continued. ‘I think you’ll like it.’
Already Penelope could sense the curious eyes of the other lecturers. ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to come back at another time,’ she snapped. ‘I’ve no time now.’ And, avoiding his bewildered gaze, she stepped around him, led the way quickly to the front door and put her key in he lock. ‘I don’t know, these young computer techies…obsessional!’ she whispered loudly, laughing to her colleagues, as she took them inside.
It was after midnight when she phoned. He was sitting at his computer. It wasn’t turned on.
‘Yes.’ He’d been waiting for her call, ready to hear her explain away the incident and make everything right again.
She didn’t. ‘Tonight…it was quite inappropriate of you to approach me like that in front of my colleagues.’
She sounded like a teacher, Manish thought. ‘I…I wanted to see you.’
‘That may be so, but you can’t just turn up like that and embarrass me. We had some very important things to discuss and…’
‘Well, frankly, yes. In my position it’s important that a certain amount of…’
‘But…I’m in love with you.’ The declaration fell from his mouth.
‘What?’ she gasped. ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’
‘I mean it. I love you…and I thought…’
Penelope’s voice hardened. ‘My dear boy…’ She stopped, and then began again. ‘Manish, you fixed my computer for me, and we had a nice time together a couple of times. You’re a sweet boy. But…I mean, that’s it.’
He didn’t reply. He couldn’t.
‘Look, I’m sorry if…’ She hesitated, then suddenly became businesslike. ‘You said you had something for me. The completed Powerpoint file? Yes? I need it for my lecture tomorrow night. Can you get it back to me, please?’
Manish didn’t speak.
‘Manish? Tomorrow morning? All right?’ It was a demand.
‘ComputaKarma will deliver it to you,’ he said at last.
‘Thank you. And have them send me the bill for the extra work you’ve done. Goodnight.’ Then she rang off.
Manish didn’t move from his chair for several hours. She’d said he was ‘ridiculous’.
At five in the morning, he switched on his computer.
An attentive quiet fell across the large audience in the Royal Geographical Society as Penelope made her way to the rostrum that evening. She’d arrived early so that a technician could attach her laptop to a screen, giving her time to greet some of the more senior guests – academics from other London colleges, a junior minister from the Home Office, and, most importantly, the producer from HARDtalk with a couple of his BBC colleagues. A second career as television’s famous social anthropologist already seemed a step closer.
As Manish had promised, the Powerpoint file had been delivered on a memory stick to her office by a motor cycle courier from ComputaKarma that morning. Now as she began her lecture, describing the teenagers she’d studied, her fingers were at her laptop, clicking photographs of initiation ceremonies, gang uniforms, weapons and punishments on to a giant screen as she talked.
It was going perfectly, she thought, and found herself complimenting herself as she talked. Her guests surely couldn’t fail to be impressed. Glancing only occasionally at the pictures as she concentrated on her speech, she’d reached sex and gang courting rites when, with a new click, there was a sudden interruption in the form of a collective gasp around the room.
She stopped and looked up. Every eye was on the screen behind her. She turned. The image she’d selected for this moment should have been of a young girl dressed for a night out, wearing a tiny skirt and vest, her hair beaded. It wasn’t. Instead a vast, twenty foot wide Nevermore was lying across the screen.
Except it wasn’t the Nevermore that Gauguin had painted. It was her, Professor Penelope Chertson, naked, and perfectly fitted into the painting, her head resting on the lemon pillow, the coloured bird watching from the open Tahitian window.
In panic, she clicked again. The next image was the same, and the following one. Each picture was now of her, naked. At the back of the hall a student giggled: then another joined in. A young man began to clap. Penelope looked back at the audience. Everywhere expressions of consternation were dissolving into embarrassed, impossible-to-disguise smiles. Then, as if unable to be suppressed any longer, the laughing began.
She fled the room. She didn’t attempt to explain to her hosts or colleagues or the producers from the BBC what had happened. How could she? In the taxi she phoned Manish. There was no answer on his mobile. At home she disconnected her phone and went to bed to weep, sleepless with anger.
The next morning she took the bus to college. She’d already decided to brazen it out. As she entered her office, Jim, the head of IT, was leaning over her assistant’s computer. ‘Something happened last night…’ she began.
‘Penelope…there’s something you have to know,’ the assistant interrupted, and stepped away from the computer.
She looked at the screen. There she was again, naked in Tahiti.
‘It’s on your computer, too?’ she gasped.
‘It’s on everyone’s computers, Penelope. You’ve become a virus.’
‘You’re a virus. It’s called Penelope as Nevermore,’ the IT expert answered, ‘and it’s infecting computers everywhere, all around the world. Microsoft and Apple have already got experts working on it, trying to create a patch to fix it, but so far…’
Professor Penelope Chertson stared at the photograph of herself on the screen.
She looked ridiculous.
Manish looked up as he heard the door open. This was his first day back in his uncle’s shop in Hyderabad. A young woman was holding a laptop. ‘And what seems to be the trouble?’ he asked.
‘It’s this virus, Penelope as Nevermore, that everyone’s talking about,’ the girl said, her eyes happy with amusement. ‘They tell me you’re an expert. Can you get rid of it for me, do you think?’
Manish looked at her. She was very young, and very pretty. ‘Oh yes, I think I can manage that all right,’ he said, and smiled back.
© Ray Connolly 2021