I’ve been working here, in the library, for almost three months, and I feel like I’m now as much a part of the furniture as the permanent members of staff. My mother is good friends with Sue, the area manager, and so they took me on just as my exams were coming to an end, even though, I suspect, they would have preferred to wait a week or so. I did OK in my A Levels, good enough to go to Uni. I was confident that I would.
It’s been a hot, hot summer, so working as a casual has been great. They always need extra staff in the summer, as people are invariably on holiday this time of year. I’ve earned some cash, and also had time to hang out at the beach with Scott, Ben, Laura, Jo and the rest of the guys. Ben’s Dad owns the chandlery on the marina, so sometimes we gets to use one of the company dinghies. We just hang out all day, fishing, swimming and boozing. Wicked. And if need some more cash, I just agree to a few more hours.
Anyway. The library is in the main square of the town where I live, where I have always lived. Until I go away to Uni in a few weeks of course. Sue lives a few doors away and was always going on at me that I should come to work in the library. So I did. She’s great, Sue. Not like a boss, kind of like an Aunt. She is totally fine if I say I’m not free to work, even though she knows it’s only ‘cos I want to go to the beach. She really looks after me. She even knocks on my door in the mornings, so we can walk in together, although she is, in truth, not there that often. Meetings and visiting the other branches and such like.
The library is actually run by the library assistants. There’s not many of those either, for a big library like ours. Not full time, anyway. There’s only Eileen (the matriarch, with her cardigan and glasses – every library needs a stereotype), John (I think he started off like me as a casual before he went to Uni, and then came back once he finished), Frances (she thinks she’s in her twenties, but she must be over 50), Jane (stress ball, early-30s, still lives at home), Maria (who’s Italian and lovely and makes me salads for lunch so I don’t keep eating chips), Pat (she keeps herself to herself, but is great with the customers) and Betty (who has been here almost as long as Eileen, and is our reference and local history expert). Poor John. Even the few part-timers and other casuals are all women, except Simon, who works in the next village over’s library, and helps out when we’re short. Which we are a lot of the time, thanks to budgets, meetings and other such stuff Sue keeps from me.
Surprisingly enough, Sue suggested John should be my mentor. All new joiners, even the full time staff, have mentors for the first six months; someone other than their line manager, someone they can go to if they have anything the need to get off their chest. I suspect that in this case, it was for John’s benefit, more than mine. But it’s cool. John is cool, mostly. He’s 27, although he still acts like a student. He is out with his friends most nights. He hangs out a lot at the Fisherman’s bar. They have live bands there most nights. In the summer, you can find him sat outside nursing his last pint of real ale beyond midnight, with his musician and sailing friends. Either that or he’s at his film club, sorry film society, as he likes to call it. John is a nightmare in the mornings. I don’t speak to him, unless I can help it, until he’s had at least 3 mugs of steaming hot, black coffee.
So it comes to today. I’m about to surprise myself. Jane is on holiday this week, and it’s Kiddie’s Nursery RhymeTime this morning, which means Maria is running around like a whirling dervish. No help there then! Sue isn’t in today, and there’s a few things that need dealing with, so that takes Betty out of the picture, putting John in the reference room. That means I get to process this week’s new DVDs. How cool is that? I’ve only ever helped out before. I love it here. They give you a lot of respect, and responsibility. Even though John is mentoring me, and Sue is mothering me, and Maria is feeding me and Pat is managing me, I can pretty much do all the jobs the full-timers do. And they let me do them too.
Now then. This week’s releases: 2 rubbish rom-coms that couldn’t possibly even raise a smile, another bloody superhero flick, a dodgy-looking horror remake, another BBC box-set, a couple of re-issued classics (I think I might even watch one of them), and if I’m not mistaken, and I may well be, a decent Hollywood release, and it isn’t even Oscar season! Do you think I’m a little young to be so cynical? And I didn’t even do film studies at school! So. I’m going to run through to ref (that’s our outstandingly originally name for the reference room) and see if John wants to take the horror film home before it goes on the shelf – he has a thing for zombies you see. And we’ve not even had tea-break yet! But hey, that’s the kind of guy I am.
The public library, that is, the public facing part of the library, is actually one very large room. However, it has been designed in such a way that it is easily compartmentalised. When the public, our lovely borrowers and Internet users and newspaper readers, first walk in, they see a large display unit, with this week’s new fiction and non-fiction, either side of posters advertising local events and other such paraphernalia. Either side against the walls is the adult fiction, which bears round to the left where you’ll find the children’s library. The main counter is on the other side of the room, where the books are issued and discharged. Off to the left of the counter is the non-fiction section and beyond that is the reference room. There is a small public computer suite just off ref. sectioned off with a movable partition. All the behind the scenes stuff: the processing of new stock, the deletion of the old, repairs, finance, staff management, delivery unpacking and the works, goes on downstairs in the basement. So, I have to come up next to the counter, walk through the adult non-fiction and into ref. Not so tricky, you might think. But. I’ll put my tuition fees on the fact it’ll take me at least 10 minutes. I know. It’s Tuesday. So, Mrs T____ will be in with her ailment of the week. She’ll also be wanting to know if I’ve found myself a nice young girl yet. Although with any luck, she’ll have baked us a cake. I tell you, if I was a son or grandson of Mrs T____, I would a. be very fat, and b. selling her cakes on a market stall and making a fortune. Her ginger cake is something from either heaven or hell, depending on your views on calorie intake. There will be the usually pile of homeless and alcoholics and recovering alcoholics to hurdle over, as they colonise every comfy chair in the building, upsetting the borrowers with their amazingly original stenches. There will be a battalion of tourists who want to send an email home, telling their loved ones that they are having a wonderful time in the library, fighting with the local regiment of immigrant labour, expecting to check their Facebook profiles to make sure they still have 176 friends back home. I suspect there will be at least one college student with an essay due in tomorrow who is looking for that obscure text book that even the college library doesn’t have, and even if it did, would have been checked out weeks ago. Not to mention the casual borrowers and semi-regulars looking for their fix of easy-read fiction.
Well then, here goes…
About 15 minutes later I’m standing next to the ref desk. John is serving a customer so I’m trying to hover inconspicuously, while not catching the eye of the guy who is standing at the doorway of the PC suite. He’s OK, if a little annoying. His name is Isak, or Ivar, or something Scandinavian. He tries to play the system, getting more than his allocated hour a day, by playing the sweet foreigner to the female members of staff. I, however, plan to ignore him for the moment. John is finishing up helping an old boy with his crossword clue and diverts his attention to me. I wave the DVD in the air from its hiding place behind my back.
‘Do you want it before it goes out?’
‘Seen it’. That’s John being as communicative as ever. Don’t get me wrong. I like John a lot. But for someone who claims to love language and words as much as he does, his spoken vocabulary is limited at best. However, I know him, so I don’t bite. I simply stand there. After a longish pause he holds out his hand.
‘Ta’ is as much as he can manage.
‘Is this is a thing you have?’ I wonder, out loud. He looks at me as if I’m a fish on a ladder with bucket of treacle balancing on my head.
‘A thing’? he replies.
Betty appears behind me.
‘Tea time, John?’ she asks, to which he leans forward to check out the clock on his PC. ‘I need an early cover today, as I’m singing with the children’, she explains.
‘Sure,’ replies John, standing up and with his mind firmly fixed on the notion of coffee and a roll. ‘Coming?’ he asks me.
My mind is completely occluded. There is dust and grit blowing up into my face as the rocks that make up my consciousness are smashed by earthquakes and volcanoes and the old gods of Mother Earth.
All I said to John was that I thought he was obsessed with films about death. Not death itself. Just films! He said, after a few mouthfuls of caffeine, that if I had been paying attention, it is films about creatures that live on beyond death that are his ‘thing’, as I had put it.
‘Zombies. Vampires. The Undead. I enjoy films where dead people aren’t really dead,’ he explained. ‘I like to think about death and not being dead, even after the body is no longer my own’. I wish I had never asked! I’ve had rants from John before, in the afternoons, you understand. He’s lectured me on the need to read classic fiction (‘They are NOT boring’, he almost shouted’), a range of non-fiction, especially politics and economics (‘How will you know who to vote for? Really’) and that Mills and Boon are, perversely, just as important as the former topics (‘It’s better they read rubbish than not reading at all. It might lead to something better…”). He has instructed me on the importance of watching horror films, Asian cinema, US independent films and as much home grown talent as I can get my hands on. To all of which I nodded sagely and made hollow promises before heading off to swim in the sea.
This, however, was the first time he had told me something about himself. I felt like diving in with the sharks.
‘So, you believe in an afterlife?’ And then came the feeding frenzy.
‘Don’t be ridiculous! I mean, how can there be an afterlife? Where would you have it? It’s not like there’s a God to wrap you in His loving arms when you die. It’s not like there’s a Devil waiting to char grill your intimates or any other form of superstitious nonsense.’
‘So why the Undead?’ I ventured.
‘Look’, he said before downing the rest of his coffee. ‘The world is all there is. The Universe is what you see. It can, and will, be explained one day. But listen, life is chance. Life is chemistry and physics and probability. Life is meaningless. You have a choice to make. You have faith in meaningless superstitious, or accept the pointlessness of it all. I’ve made my choice.’
I looked blank at him. I put the top back on the bottle of juice I had been gripping, hiding my fear. I got up to head for the fridge.
‘Do you understand?’ he asked.
‘No!’ At least I’m honest.
‘It’s my hope. It’s something to cling on to. We all need something, we all need a ‘thing’. Mine is eternal existence. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to become nothing.’
Not knowing how to respond to that I show my age.
‘We should go back now. I have to cover the counter so Frances can have her tea.’
Once tea break is over I rush downstairs to finish the DVD processing, almost colliding with Jeff, our maintenance man, hereto sort out some electrical problem or fix a shelf or something. I want to think about what John has said, but more importantly, I want to get away from another session of ‘The Wheels On The Bus’, ‘Old McDonald’s Farm’ and a variety of other delightful tunes designed specifically to drive a teenager – me – insane. Once you have those wheels turning and the ducks quacking in your head, you have yourself one ruined day. I wonder about the reasons why John believed that life was so meaningless. I knew he wasn’t religious. Hey, who is these days? But I hadn’t realised he was one of Dawkin’s militant atheist types. Then again, why would I? Surely, though, life has to mean something? It had to come from somewhere, didn’t it? Even if there is no God (by the way, I’m undecided – I’m still hedging my bets), something had to have started the universe? You can’t get something out of nothing? Oh whatever. What do I care? I just want to go to the beach!
Anyway, I finish off the DVD’s in time to do a little shelving, never more than a little, before I’m on the counter at noon. Frances, Betty and Maria will go for lunch. John and I will be on the counter and we’ll close the ref desk. Pat should be starting at 1pm today, and that’s me done at 2pm.
A few minutes before noon Laura appears at the entrance, waving her hand, gesturing that I should join her outside. I hold up the pile of Chick Lit books in my arms, indicating that I am busy. She comes in.
‘Can’t stay,’ she says, ‘Jo is double parked. You coming out this evening?’ Laura has no idea what day any day is.
‘Half day today; Finish at two.’ I explain.
‘Where will you be?’ I venture.
‘Come to the marina.’ She reaches forward and pecks me on the cheek and is out again before I can say ‘Sure’.
John taps me on the shoulder as I walk past. I look round and he’s pointing at the clock. It’s noon. Time for shift change.
So, I’m walking over towards the counter, having replaced my pile of undoubted classics of literature back on the returns trolley. John is a few feet ahead of me. Laura, by now, must be back in Jo’s car. Frances has already left the counter and Maria is serving one the mothers with a clutch of babies and toddlers. I hope they’re not all hers. The library is usually fairly quiet at this time. Most of the older customers tend to avoid the days we have child-friendly events. There are a couple of middle-aged men browsing the fiction and there’s a couple of guys I knew from school hanging around the entrance to the computer suite. By the time I reach the counter, the entrance to the suite is out of my line of sight.
There is a small explosion from the direction of the computer suite. I say it is small because no actual explosives appeared to be involved. It didn’t sound much like a computer either. Everyone except Jake, the resident drunk who I can see is asleep on the sofa, has jumped out their collective skins and are currently staring at John and I, expecting answers on the loud noise issue. John says ‘I’ll go see’, and off he goes. I resume issuing books to a woman and her grandchild. There is another crash from the direction of ref. There’s nothing I can do. With a good few people milling about, I can’t leave the counter, and therefore the till, unattended. There’s no-one else to call on. A few customers wander over towards to ref; some are cautious, but most appear to be curious.
John pokes his head out of the computer suite and shouts at me ‘Call the police!’
By this time, everything in the library has stopped. No-one is getting any closer to the source of the disturbance. No-one is browsing for books. Everyone is looking at me. Expecting.
As I pick up the phone, a couple of girls run out of the suite. They are two of the regulars. I think they are from Poland, and are working in one of the hotels. The tall one looks scared. They run right out of the exit and into the street.
There is another commotion now. Jake has woken up as a result of the incident. That in itself is a surprise, as it usually takes a book slammed shut about the vicinity of his ears to get any response from him. It would appear that he has upset one of the old boys who has come in to collect his weekly dose of cowboy pulps. I’m still standing with the phone in my hand wondering what to do. Shall I call the police? Shall I ask a member of the public for help? Shall I yell for John? I think I might stand here with my mouth open a little longer.
The old boy shoves Jake, who has stumbled back into the children’s section. There is another almighty crash as he stumbles into a display of children’s books. Meanwhile, John comes running out of the ref suite shouting ‘Are the police coming?’ and ‘Had Betty come back in?’ at me. I still have the phone in my hand and the vast gulf of space between my lips. He grabs the phone from me and yells ‘Sort out Jake!”
It takes what seems like an eternity, but eventually, I will my feet into motion.
Jake was struggling, and I mean struggling, to get to his feet. He had gotten half way up a few times, but he was putting his weight on a selection of hard back non-fiction, and he was sliding all over the place. I still had no idea what was going on in ref. The old boy was still yelling abuse at Jake; the usual clichés about getting a job, sobering up and taking a bath, although in hindsight, I suspect he might have changed the order of his pointless advice.
‘C’mon Jake, time to go,’ I suggested, as I offered my hand in the hope he would take it. We’re not strictly allowed to place our hands on the customers, but I was offering him a choice. It was then I noticed the piles of children’s books scattered hither and thither about Jake. That’s when I started backing off. Jake reached forward to take my hand, but it was no longer within his grasp. I was stumbling backwards, turning and running. They say knowledge is power, but it was a power I didn’t want. I didn’t care for it at all.
I’ve not been back in the library, despite my Dad lecturing me and Sue’s attempts to court me. To this day, I don’t know what happened in ref. I’ve not seen John since the incident. I refuse to let anyone tell me about it.
I’m off to Uni tomorrow. I might be the most powerful person in the world, but all I want is the same experience every else has when they leave home. Parties, sex, and I suppose learning too. I hope I make some good friends. I hope I can forget.
I have trouble sleeping now, but the cheap cider helps. I hear there’s lots of that at Uni. When I do sleep, all I can see is a pile of books surrounding the future of mankind. And on every page and on every cover. Nothing but turtles.