A Ghost Story
“Come on’ Great Uncle Phil, tell us a ghost story!”
I’d settled down in front of the log fire in the library one evening, and was staring gloomily at the embers, whilst sipping an agreeable port. For me, Christmas is a bittersweet time, a time to contact friends and relatives, and reflect on those no longer with us. The children had burst in on my solitude from the light and noise of the drawing room
“Ghost Story? Hmm. I can tell you a few IT horror stories. TJX and the 45 million customer records, the NHS, or the missing Child Benefit database.”
Outside, there was a sudden clap of thunder and a squall of rain beat on the windows. The faces of my little great nieces and nephews went pale, and they trembled, despite the proximity of the blazing fire.
“No”, said little Eve nervously, acting as spokesman, “it has to be a ghost story, and one about computers. We always have ghost stories at Halloween. You do believe in ghosts, don’t you?”
“Well, we all occasionally experience things that we find hard to explain.” I paused for a moment to collect my thoughts. “It happened to me once at work, in the early nineties, when I was an IT manager in an international corporate near London.”
The children sensed a story, and began to settle down by the fire.
“David was one of that breed of programmer one doesn’t often see nowadays. When he was trained, there was much less peripheral stuff to learn, and so undergraduates concentrated hard on the basic craft of programming, on algorithms, on getting to the heart of business processes. He was a good programmer.”
“Was he a ghost?” asked little Oliver, looking slightly bored.
“I’d never worked with him, but I’d seen his work. It had fantastic style. He could use Cobol or Fortran to create programming structures that were effective, simple and robust. Unlike lesser talents, he didn’t rush in, but took time to plan, to see the big picture, to spot what was important and what wasn’t.”
“… but he wasn’t a ghost.” commented Oliver with some disappointment.
“Ah, you may say that” I retorted, “but one day, he was hit by the 5.47 train from Liverpool Street.”
There was an appreciative silence from my descendents. “Was it horrible?” asked Rupert, eventually.
“It was, as a matter of fact.” I said. “Very messy. ” I paused, flinching at the memory of the inquest. There was a frisson of excitement in front of the fire. “David had been in the team that developed one of the most important projects we’d ever undertaken. He worked well with understanding managers, but for this job he had the misfortune of working under one of the worst managers in the business – a man called Nigel Savage.
Nigel had no idea how to make a team work well. You can train a manager, but some people will always revert to black arts instinctively. Nigel was one of these. He saw that the key to the success of the project was David – so he put him under pressure in many subtle, but ruthlessly-unkind, ways.”
“Shouldn’t Nigel have been hit by a train?”
“We’ll come to that. The inquest hinted at David’s suicide. I knew more than most about the vindictive spite and black politics that Nigel had used against his team, and David in particular, but somehow I still didn’t think it was. Nevertheless, we were all very shocked, and all wondered if we’d done all we could to try to prevent it. His computer stood unused at his desk for a couple of months. For us, it was like an extended wake. David had spent so long at his computer that it seemed to us as if part of his soul had transferred into the inanimate object and its circuitry. Nigel sensed nothing at all besides the rank injustice to himself of having a key programmer in his team dispatched by the grim reaper. He felt that it was most inconvenient.”
“Not a twinge of guilt?”, asked Eve,
The children gave an involuntary shudder. A gust of wind howled in the chimney, as if nature itself reared up in revulsion.
“Eventually, we got some industrial trainees in the department. They were undergraduates, working under supervision. One of them joined Nigel’s team and took over David’s computer. Things seemed to return to normal and we got on with life.
It was a few weeks later that I was chatting, in the canteen, to one of the university lecturers who’d come to supervise the students. ‘Our student has come on a lot’ he said. ‘She used to be a bit of a plodder with her programming; much better with business analysis. What do you think, Phil?’. I cast an eye over the printout. It was good; very good; too good; and I recognised David’s style immediately”
“Ooohhh!” said one of the great nephews, “automatic writing?”
“It gave me quite a turn I can tell you. My first thought that it was something of David’s on the hard drive they’d missed, but it was written in response to a change request that had come in only a couple of weeks ago. All the quirks were there; the way he named subroutines, the style of comments. I gulped, but merely said ‘She has learned very quickly from a great tutor’. I thought it best not to elaborate’
“It was as if that small part of David in that machine was still striving, as he always did, to finish the project; that determination to succeed, transcending mortality.”
“Is that all?” asked my great nephew Tom, disappointed.
“If only it had been.” I sighed. “The whole department knew that something was horribly wrong but Nigel sensed nothing. His project was suddenly on-schedule and he was going to get a promotion out of it. That was all that mattered to him. And so it was. When the project finished, we put David’s PC in a cupboard in the Computer Room. None of us could explain why.”
“Well, over the coming days, things started going wrong for Nigel. The word spread from the surviving members of the development team about Nigel’s petulant and bullying manner, and his insensitive management style. Nigel’s acts of vindictiveness, spite, and black politics against his team, and David in particular, became ‘Water-fountain’ gossip. After a while, Nigel ate alone in the canteen, a pariah. An ambitious manager must never have a reputation as a martinet. ‘He gets his projects in on time, but at what a cost!’ All the managers smelt the stench of a career in freefall, and avoided him.
Despite the ultimate success of the project, Nigel gradually underwent a striking change in demeanour. Gone was the cocky, ruthless action-man, replaced by someone who seemed…err…haunted by anxiety. He seemed distracted, looking over his shoulder, as if fearful of shadows, and dimly seen shapes in the periphery of his vision.”
“Had he seen a ghost?”
“One morning, we received the news that Nigel had been mown down by the 6.45 Yarmouth train. It was a ghastly shock, even if a wit in the department was heard to remark ‘It couldn’t have happened to a nicer man’. Two deaths, even in a large IT department, was a shock. The Company Directors decided that the pressures of delivering such an important IT project were probably to blame. There were many repercussion.
The train driver was the man to feel most sorry for. His testimony at the inquest made one suspect that the shock of what had happened had unhinged him, for he swore to the coroner that, as he rounded the end of the Marks Tey Viaduct, he saw two men on the crossing, one struggling as if to get away, and the other grey, impassive, almost translucent: As if, he added, locked together in a macabre dance. But he swore that he hit only one man.
It was my sad job, as Nigel’s colleague, to clear up his desk, and his PC. I sorted through his emails to delete or archive everything. It was then that I came across…the emails.” I gave a pause and looked at the audience. Their pale faces looked up in delighted anticipation
“There were five of them; Simple in their content and sent to to Nigel in the days leading up to his death Apparently they were from David, though that was, of course, impossible. Can an email somehow get stuck for months in a relay somewhere? The first email read simply: ‘We meet in a week.’
Another one read: ‘Three days to go, Nigel.’. The final, haunting email read:
‘Tomorrow will be our dancing day…‘
The room lapsed into a hushed silence.
“So what happened”, asked Rupert finally “did you bury the haunted computer?”
“Bury it? Of course not. When the department disposed of it, I bought it from facilities, as a memento. It is in the attic here if you’d like to see it.”
Eve gave a squeak of fright. At that moment, Great Aunt Jenny burst into the library. “Now there you are, children, time to wash your hands for supper. And I hope that Great Uncle Phil hasn’t been telling you one of his silly stories.” The children streamed out into the light, hubbub, and colours of Christmas Dinner.