Whispers. They’re whispering again. They think I can’t hear them.
A body needs a good pair of ears for this job. My other senses have faded from wear and tear, yet, with every birthday and each new prescription for spectacles, my hearing grows clearer. I hear the turning of every page, even from the other end of the library, and can even distinguish the sounds of one volume from another.
From here, I could listen to half a dozen of you reading, count up the pages you turn and guess at which chapters you’re all on. Sometimes, I walk over with my trolley for shelving as cover for my curiosity and look over your shoulders. Nineteen times out of twenty, I’m right.
I keep it to myself, though. Nobody likes a clever-clogs.
“Why Granny”, I’ve heard some of them say, “what sharp ears you have”. Cheeky little tykes. I’m not yet forty. Some look like they’d say it to my face. Father would have taken a belt to us for less, but these youngsters don’t seem to care.
That’s right, you heard me. Woe betide you if I have to shush you again. The tongue in this head is almost as sharp as these ears, and I’m not afraid to use it.
Oh yes. You two might look around with innocence all over your faces. I can read you as well as you’re following the lines on that page.
You can grin, but I’ve asked people to leave for less than you’ve got away with so far. I’m torn, however, between doing my job and encouraging you to enjoy the most important book in our collection.
The Farther Quintile, by Professor Aidan Torrence, the work which inspired and informed everything else in the field it single-handedly ploughed, planted and harvested. Considered by many a tough read, it has remained in print since 1929. Even those who find its prose impenetrable can’t dispute its influence. It’s short, less than sixty-thousand words. Since then, others have written more than a hundred times as many attempting to distil its essence and meaning.
That’s a first edition. If the binding was in better condition, and it wasn’t full of library stamps and markings, you’d pay more for one of those on Charing Cross Road than you’ll ever take home in a month between you.
Professor Torrence teaches at the university, just five minutes from here. He lives in a Victorian terraced house, a quarter-hour walk in the other direction, and regularly calls in on the way home. He devotes the few hours he spends not teaching or writing, sleeping or eating, to consuming the words of others.
The professor particularly loves detective stories and Westerns.
Thanks to Mr Marshall’s article in the Times Literary Supplement, that’s now common knowledge. He swore us librarians to secrecy, in case people stopped taking him seriously, then announced it to the world. The man is his own worst enemy.
I was a slip of a thing when I started here, straight out of school. Once he knew me well enough to know I wouldn’t mind, he teased me for my shyness, the glasses I needed already at that age, and the slight figure I’ve maintained since girlhood when Mother struggled to feed us properly during the war.
Once he saw me typing and bet five pounds to a penny that I couldn’t double my speed in a week. Seven days later, he watched me again and handed over the money. It was more than I earned in a fortnight. I protested, but he wouldn’t budge.
Then he said he needed someone to help prepare his manuscript. I was now the quickest typist he knew. What did I do with myself during evenings and weekends?
“Nothing much, really”, I replied.
We started a few days later.
I didn’t tell anyone, not even my parents. Neither paid attention to my comings and goings. Father got blown up in France in 1917 and spoke to no one about that, or anything else, for the next twenty-two years. According to mother, the prospect of my little brothers going away to do it all over again did for him in the end.
With ten and twelve years between myself and my siblings, Mother never had time to worry about her grown-up daughter. I doubt she’s ever had me down as the marrying kind. If she considered my absences at all, I expect she thought I was working late at the library.
Aidan, the professor, I mean, handed me the scruffiest school exercise book I ever saw. His handwriting was even less legible than I expected.
“I can’t read this”, I told him. “You’ll have to dictate it to me”.
So he did. The first evening, we went through fifteen pages. He wanted to keep going, but his typewriter, which I don’t think he’d ever touched, was heavier than the ones at the library. My fingers were unused to such punishment. They tingle now from thinking about it.
We agreed to three ninety-minute evening sessions each week and two hours on Sunday afternoon, as long as he replaced the typewriter. The next day, he quietly exchanged it for one from the university, and we were in business.
When we finished the first chapter, he asked what I thought. He looked crestfallen when I said we typists focus only on getting the words onto paper. Would I mind taking it home to read? No, I said, I’d like to.
The following afternoon, he called in to collect the new Dorothy L Sayers. I missed him, being in another part of the building. When I returned to the desk, he had left a bunch of flowers for me. Fortunately, my colleague had the foresight to take them to the back office. She even put them in a jug of water for me.
At our next meeting, I ran through my long list of observations on his writing style. I had marked up all superfluous words, offering alternatives for many others. I suggested reordering four pages in the middle of the chapter while two, I thought, he should remove in their entirety.
Then I told him I would consider our contract at an end if he embarrassed me in front of my colleagues again. He seemed surprised, apologised, and said he would try not to.
After three weeks, we caught up with what he’d written so far. He tried to finish it during hours evolution never designed us to see. The quality of his writing suffered terribly. He looked dreadful, and I told him to stop it at once.
I said I’d run through what we had of the typescript to date and tidy it while he wrote during sensible hours. Curiously, I found myself restless and even unhappy during the following weeks. Eventually, I realised I missed our sessions. In the meantime, however, I busied myself improving upon his words, and time passed quickly.
After several weeks, we resumed. Professing himself pleased with my efforts, we used them as the basis for our second draft.
When we finished the fifth, months later, he said we could take it no farther. We should leave it now for the professionals. I knew we had created something wonderful and unique. While I could not imagine how any other editor might improve upon it, I admit I agree with most of the changes we approved before publication.
The book drained every creative thought from the professor, such that he could not imagine finding another.
“When did we start?” he asked.
I told him.
“Heavens, we could have had a baby in that time”.
I protested that we certainly could not. Otherwise, I excused him on the grounds of exhaustion.
Going home, I felt empty. What would I do with my evenings and weekends now he didn’t need me anymore?
He sent the manuscript to his publisher who, to our surprise, rejected it. I was livid on his behalf - and remained so for days. After his initial disappointment, the professor was philosophical. He visited me regularly at the library, assuring me it was nothing out of the ordinary, nor even unexpected. Before long, he said, they would all be fighting for it.
It was, however, another two years before he sold it to a small academic press. They made further cuts and changes, delaying its publication by another twelve months. Eventually, the proofs arrived, and he handed them straight to me, promising dinner at the finest restaurant in town when every comma and full stop were in their rightful places.
I demanded the removal of my name from the dust jacket. I didn’t care about standard practice in academic circles; it was coming off. I agreed, reluctantly, to a credit on the title page, provided they reduced the font size.
Over dinner, I saw him shift uneasily in his chair. It’s what he does when about to mention in passing something of which he knows I will disapprove. He said he’d signed over a share of the royalties to me, but not to get all uppity because hardly anyone will buy it. Obviously, I told him it was entirely unacceptable. He already paid me far more than any other typist would have asked. He listened until I finished, waved my objection aside and ordered more wine.
Apart from that, it was a pleasant evening. On leaving, he asked whether I would mind if he kissed me. Perhaps I was unused to drinking wine, but I said I would not.
So he did.
It seemed to make him happy. Strange as it might seem, I rather enjoyed it myself.
But I’m racing ahead.
Despite his determination to never put himself through that again, the idea for his second book came just days after finishing The Farther Quintile, and our meetings resumed almost immediately. Though insubstantial by comparison, it outsold the first many times over.
I don’t think he does it to annoy me, but insists the second is his favourite, adding further evidence to the theory that clever people sometimes do not understand that of which they speak.
Despite positive reviews in academic journals and the quality press, TFQ, as we refer to it, took several years to achieve its present status. Famous international institutions began inviting him to address them across America and Europe. He asked me to accompany him. I declined, of course. The library needed me, and it wouldn’t have been proper.
Before the end of the decade, Britain was, again, at war. At fifty-one, the professor was exempt from conscription, and the government allowed me to continue at the library for the good of the community. We set about creating a companion to his masterpiece from his notebooks of questions from audiences and thoughts arriving on boats and trains, collected while travelling the world.
Yesterday, I closed up as usual and went home to check on Mother. It was Wednesday, so I walked to the professor’s house after tea, eager to carry on with chapter seven. Shortly before we were due to finish, we heard the air-raid siren and prepared to leave for the shelter. On opening the door, the snow drove us back. He suggested we sat instead beneath his heavy oak dining table. I thought that an excellent idea, not least because we could carry on until the all-clear.
I heard the planes long before they arrived. These ears aren’t always a blessing. I started shaking a little and hoped it would pass unnoticed.
He took my hand.
I thought of father and what he endured a quarter-century ago. I turned to prevent my companion from noticing the tear forming in my right eye.
“Oh, my dear Skinny”, he said. “If we get out of here alive, do you think you might allow me to marry you?”
A plane passed directly overhead, and something fell.
This morning, I returned to the library.
I’m here, so I must have, but remember nothing of the night or early morning. I hope Mother and Professor Torrence are alright.
Whispers. They’re whispering again. They think I can’t hear them. I’ll go over quietly and surprise them.
I wonder what the caretaker did to the floor yesterday. It used to creak with every second step, but now it doesn’t make a sound. It’s perfect for creeping up on those disrespecting the rules.
This is the best part.
I stand across from them on the other side of the table and wait for them to look up. They always jump, sometimes they even scream. Usually, they get up and leave, which saves me from shushing them again.
Then I lift The Farther Quintile, replace it on the shelf and return to the desk to continue my silent vigil. What an honour to spend my days in this house of words, with my dear friend’s masterpiece as the flame atop the candle, the snow upon the mountain peak, and the brightest star in the sky.
Today, though, feels long and sluggish. As if time stopped working. And yet, despite my inability to separate seconds from minutes and hours, I find myself entirely at peace.
It took three months, but the latest Agatha Christie arrived today. I forgot to take it with me last night, but the professor said he’d call in on his way home.
He won’t be long now, I am sure. And when he gets here, I will give him my answer.