Behind the broad wooden counter stood the librarian. She was tuned into the silence. Her feet were encased in soft plimsolls, and they did not scuff the polished floorboards over which she glided, between the reserve shelves and the counter and the trolley. She stood poised, as if ready to jump. Or perhaps she was just listening to a particular disturbance in the air - someone at the back of the rare books room had torn a leaf, a shelf ticket had fluttered to the floor, the colonel was muttering in his sleep again.
She was not the head librarian. The head librarian was less nimble, not so tuned in anymore to the silence. She bided her time: the kick-step needed mending, the books were heavy, and the shelves were high. That was a rare dark thought; most days, she bided her time peacefully and with due regard for process. She listened to the silence, and did her job. She could tell what each reader wanted; she knew where the best books were kept.
“Excuse me,” said a young man. He was wearing a stained tweed jacket over port-wine trousers. She had listened to him turning pages: a quarto, eighteenth century, decent paper. He had turned them with increasing ferocity, back and forth, chapters at a time, whole sections falling onto the table. He had ordered the wrong book.
“I think I’ve - are you sure this is the right book?”
She took it in her tough, slim fingers and opened it like a jewel box. It was the book he had ordered: the identical shelf-mark was on the slip inside the cover. It was not one of the best books. She imagined the stacks fifty feet below the pavement, letting her mind drift along the dark corridors, each ceiling-light in turn flickering on with some reluctance ahead of her. She imagined the heavily-geared wheel turning to move the stacks apart. In the new space thus created, she visualised the books on the bottom shelf, one by one, from left to right.
“You meant to order the first edition,” she said, simply, beginning to fill in the order slip.
“I don’t think so - I mean, I spoke to the head librarian,” said the young man, at which she prevented herself from looking up at him, “and she said...”
“The first edition is the book that you want,” she said, still looking at the order slip, “with the argument, in verse, between the preface and the address to the reader.”
“Yes,” he said, as she looked him squarely in the eye, so that he blushed very slightly.
“That’s right, thank you,” he said, slightly more loudly than necessary. A woman with ironed-flat hair looked up for a beat, and then looked down; a whispered conversation by the stairwell was interrupted; the colonel almost woke.
She moved silently away, pushed the slip into the vacuum tube, and returned to her post. The young man paused at the counter. He had blue eyes. “I wouldn’t bother, actually,” she said, looking up at him again, “you’ll find our copy is just a fragment.”
“A fragment?” “Just the frontispiece, and the envoi. Nothing else, not even a catch-word.” “I see,” he said. “The Duke of Albemarle’s library has a mint copy.” “Ah,” he said, the soft light of hope illuminating his face, which seemed quite pleasant, now that she looked at it. “I can see if we might borrow it for you.” “Would you?” She nodded, moving out from behind the counter, towards an old man almost lost within the pages of an immense folio. It, in turn, sat deep in a pile of foam book-rests within the shadows of which the heads and tails of book-snakes could occasionally be glimpsed. “Your Grace,” she said, in his ear, “someone’s asking for the book again.” The Duke sat up slowly, and pushed his half-moon glasses back up his nose. “It’s out of the question,” he said, with great clarity, before resuming his studies.
“I’m very sorry,” she said. “Are there any other copies? I feel sure that you must know,” said the young man, looking back at her. He had tidied his hair somewhat while she had been talking to the Duke. He had cleaned his glasses, too. “There are none,” she said. “And - is there any way, do you think, if perhaps at a different time you were to ask...”
She had been there, to the Duke’s great, dilapidated Hall, surrounded by decaying farmland. The library was in great danger from the creeping damp, and she had catalogued its books for him one Christmas, her thin frame shivering despite jumpers and scarves piled upon one another, despite the decent fire raised by the Duke’s one remaining servant. The book was in a cabinet behind a glass door, between a First Folio and a bound set of civil war newspapers. The door to the Hall was never locked; the door to the library was off its hinges; the cabinet was flimsy and could be picked at will. She had thought all of this before, in idleness, mostly. Now she looked back at the young man, with his unadorned ring finger to match hers, with his crumpled trousers and his hesitant smile.
She looked around the library, at the sleeping colonel and the woman with the ironed-flat hair. She thought of the dark cool corridors beneath the earth where the good books were, where she could tread softly and summon the light as she moved. She thought of the head librarian, and the sixty-fourth birthday card standing on the mantelpiece in her office.
She looked back at the young man, and said, “it’s out of the question.” He paused for a moment, and then turned and walked away. As he did so, out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of the head librarian, shuffling ominously towards the high shelves at the back of the room. With no hesitation, and yet a sharp pang of loss, she said, “Watch out for that kick-step.”
- end -