‘So what is this place?’
‘It’s the place where all the lost words go.’
I viewed the towering racks of files, suspended from aluminium staging, stretching up to a ceiling so high it was almost out of sight.
‘Sure. The words we lose.’
The Guide stopped and turned to face me.
‘You know when you are working on something, something written and your computer goes pfft!?’
I scratched my head and nodded. It happened more often than I could care to count.
‘And did you ever wonder what happens to the words you didn’t manage to save before the computer went pffft?’
‘Ever send an email that never arrives?’
‘Ever had a disk fail on you and lose your files? Some get recovered, but the others have disappeared?’
‘Well, this is where they end up.’
‘Here. All the lost words. They end up here.’
‘Is it? They have to be somewhere you know. You have said it yourself when you lost words: “They have to be somewhere” you said.’
‘But I didn’t mean here.’
‘Well, they weren’t on your computer.’
‘So they had to be somewhere else. This is the somewhere else.’
I scratched my head again. This sounded weird. Weird, but plausible. After all they had to be somewhere, it was true, so why not here?
‘Do you ever try to get the words back to the people they belong to?’
‘Oh no, we would never do that.’
‘That wouldn’t be right. Not at all. If words are lost it is for a reason.’
‘So there was a reason I lost my dissertation and had to start over again?’
‘Did you pass?’
‘Yes, with honours.’
‘Well, there you go. If you hadn’t lost the first dissertation you wouldn’t have submitted the one you did.’
‘Are you saying I wouldn’t have got my honours if I had submitted the first?’
‘Was the second exactly the same as the first.’
‘No, I don’t think it could have been.’
‘And it’s the same with all the words that get lost? They are lost for a reason? I can’t see it.’
The Guide sighed and set off down a side alley between the stacks.
I followed. After several hundred metres we stopped. The guide pressed a button on the wall and the files in the stack rotated. Eventually he nodded in a satisfied sort of way and pulled out a slim file. In it was a single sheet of paper.
‘Read this,’ he said, handing it to me. I read. It was a poem. Not a great poem, but a poem. A love poem. From the tone of it, it had been written by a guy to his lover. Parts of it were pretty raunchy. It wasn’t going to win any prizes but its meaning was clear. I handed it back and the Guide replaced the file in its place.
‘That poem was sent in an email to a woman in Montreal from the man she worked with. She was having an affair with him.’
‘So I see.’
‘The email server crashed that day and this one was with a batch that didn’t get through and missed the backup schedule.’
‘So it came here.’
‘Indeed, and just consider what would have happened if it didn’t.’
He pressed another button and a screen slid up from the floor. I watched as the screen flickered and then lit up. I could see a man reading from a screen on his desk. He was frowning, then his face turned to disgust and finally anger. A woman walked in. She saw the screen and a look of horror flashed across her face. They argued. She seemed to be pleading with him. There was no sound but I managed to lipread her saying, ‘I’m so sorry.’ He hit her. She was crying now.
The scene changed to outdoors. He was loading suitcases into a taxi. The woman was standing on the doorstep. She was crying again. A small face peered from behind her skirt. It was a boy, no more than four years old. He looked bewildered. The taxi door slammed shut and it drove away.
Another scene, in an office. The same woman was being interviewed by a man. It was clear from her face this was not good news. She started to cry and the man slid a box of tissues across the desk. Then she stood and left the office. Another man was waiting outside. He looked like he had something to say to her, but she walked straight past him without looking.
The next scene was of her clearing her desk into a cardboard box and being escorted out of the office by two security guards. Then the screen went blank.
The Guard pressed the button again and the screen slid back into the floor.
‘Now do you understand?’
‘You are saying the poem would have caused all that?’
‘Not on its own, no.’
‘So what really happened?’
‘The poem never arrived, the man thought she was ignoring him so stopped pestering her for a date. They kept their jobs. She carried on being faithful to her husband.’
‘They lived happily ever after?’
‘People rarely do. But the little boy is now twenty-three and graduated from Law School last year.’
I thought about this. It was true my first thesis had been rushed. When I explained to my professor what had happened she had given me an extension due to exceptional circumstances. It probably wouldn’t have made the grade. At least the woman stayed with her man long enough for the boy to grow up.
We walked in silence back the entrance and I stood and watched the heavy steel doors slide back into place. All the lost words. As much as we wish we hadn’t lost them, I now understood we were probably better off without them.