I’ve been coming to this library for as long as I can remember, spending countless afternoons in the company of the old Librarian and my beautiful mom. My memories are wrapped in the mustiness of old books and filed along the rows of the dusty bookshelves.
I feel the familiar ache for those peaceful days – and Mom.
Walking through the dark-wood doors like the velvet curtains that open onto a magical stage, the feeling of entering an enchanted realm is magnified. Something has changed. Have they refurbished since my last visit?
Now that I think about it – when exactly was my last visit?
Although the library was always my sanctuary from this ruthless world, it’s been a while, and the change is remarkable. The dull bronze doorknobs and curtain rails on the large bay windows are polished back to their former brilliance, and the weathered bookshelves seem transformed by their dust-free gleam. The carpet is brighter and less threadbare, and Scarlett O’Hara would happily adorn herself with the elegant green velvet curtains. The same curtains that have only been as bright as the backdrop to my dreams.
Now don’t get me wrong. Miss Abigail does her best to keep things clean and tidy, but today she has taken an Artist’s brush and painted a fresh version of my happy place.
The years melt away as I see that familiar little girl lightly skipping down the aisles, lost in this paradise of imagination, looking for her mom. I would always find her in the romance section sitting with her back against the bookcase and her nose buried somewhere between that week’s lovers' first starry-eyed meeting and their fairy-tale happily-ever-after. Her peaceful expression dissolved years from her tired eyes, and her face was softened by the romance that had captivated her heart for those brief minutes. She would hum softly as the pages transported her into a new love story each time.
Comfortable with her proximity and familiar humming, I’d silently tiptoe away to sit with Miss Abigail who would regale me with her favourite children’s stories. Somehow, she knew that Mom needed time away from the harsh world outside these doors, and she would keep me happily entertained until it was time to get back home to him.
Back then I thought that all dads shouted at moms and threw glasses of whiskey against walls. Sometimes when Mom would get lost in her stories for too long, no amount of rushing could get his dinner ready on time, and my throat would constrict when I saw the whiskey bottle come out. Every nerve in my body would feel like the shards of glass that would explode against the wall.
The library was our escape.
Miss Abigail had been the librarian there through all these years. Her mousy brown hair in the tight knot at the nape of her neck and her observant eyes camouflaged by her horn-rimmed glasses were as enduring as the library itself. Though the library started to show its age eventually, Miss Abigail never did. She was one of the constants in my life and part of the reason I loved the library so much.
When Mom died, Miss Abigail would comfort me with stories about her as a child. I never questioned how she knew so much about Mom; I was just grateful for the comfort of her familiar gentle voice and the kindness in her embrace.
Although it was my sanctuary, the library visits became less regular after Mom was gone. Life gets busy and as a young adult trying to make my way in a tough world, I had other priorities. Whenever I needed a word of comfort or to escape down a familiar aisle, however, I would make my weary way back to Miss Abigail. I always felt rejuvenated after a visit and would promise to be back soon.
Later, as a research assistant, I was drawn back more frequently and Miss Abigail always directed me to the perfect material. My colleagues were perplexed by my preference for an old dusty library rather than the super information highway that was the internet, and their frowns and snickers would follow me out of the office as I would again rush off to Miss Abigail.
They never quite managed to match my information and findings though.
Whether as a child looking for solace or an employee looking for information – my library never failed to deliver, and neither did Miss Abigail.
My research years, too, faded into the greyness of time and the leaves on the oak trees outside the large bay windows have changed colours many times since I last came through these doors.
Moving to a new city when I married, I found a new library where I would occasionally go to escape into a world of adventure and intrigue as I would sit with my back against the wall and my own nose buried in a book just as Mom had done all those years ago. This library, however, was modern and cold, and the only humming I could hear here was from the row of computers against the front wall. I didn’t even know the Librarian’s name, and he was much brusquer in his dealings with his patrons. How my heart longed for a hug from Miss Abigail to get me through each week in this new impersonal world I found myself in.
Ironically it was the whiskey that got me through my divorce. I should have ventured back then, but the whiskey clouded my judgement and I kept to the same conveyer belt of work hard, drink hard, sleep hard. Now and then I would nurse my hangover in the quiet of that cold, impersonal library, and each time I would promise myself to be more like the strong capable heroines of the stories that would captivate me for a few hours.
Filled with resolve and fresh hope I would march out of the characterless doors ready to face the world head-on. The familiar shards of glass at the bottom of the bin as I tried to rid myself of my demons and the bottles on my shelf would strengthen my resolve for a few weeks.
Old habits die hard, though. I was never able to stay away from the persistent call of the whiskey bottle, and before long I would be soothing myself again with the warmth of the liquid gold.
Today, however, I am filled with gratitude that I find myself back where I belong.
Walking through the beautifully polished doors of my library, a rush of familiar belonging engulfs me. Its old-world charm and cosy intimacy have been embellished by the obvious refurbishment. For the first time in years, I relax properly, and I can imagine the years sliding from my own tired eyes as I look around for Miss Abigail.
My smile falters when I don’t see her anywhere, and with a sickening lurch, I realise how many years have passed since my last visit. My breath catches on a gasp of sudden dread.
Have I left it too late?
Panicked, I move between the aisles searching for the horn-rimmed glasses and the nondescript bun. It is not whiskey that is currently burning in my gut, but the knowledge that Miss Abigail is my last chance at redemption. If she is gone, then so will I be.
Even though my sudden dread, I am again struck by how fresh the library looks – it truly has been transformed to its former glory. I take some comfort from the memories that are now starting to overcome the numbness in my mind.
My panic is subsiding, and a feeling of peace starts to wash over me - did I finish that bottle of whisky on the journey here? I am confused by the calming warmth spreading through my limbs, but there is none of the usual confusion that accompanies the whiskey.
A movement catches my eye and I turn to see the familiar sight of Miss Abigail back at her centre console. Her face lights up with a dazzling smile as she sees me and, at that moment, she appears younger than I ever remember her. Her glossy brown hair in a soft chignon is a rich contrast to her brilliant green eyes, that no longer seem camouflaged by her chic horn-rimmed glasses.
“We have been waiting for you, Jess.”
Her gentle voice is as kind as I remember and I am about to move into her open arms when I am distracted by a sound coming from the last aisle on the right.
Silently I move towards the humming and as I turn into the familiar aisle, I stop abruptly, mesmerised as the lost years fade into obscurity. Sitting with her back to the bookcase and her nose buried in a book is Mom. She looks relaxed and peaceful and is humming her favourite Gloria Gaynor song which still sometimes filters into my dreams. I know that if I disturb her, she will disappear taking with her the tenuous fragments of my last hopes for a new beginning. So, I start to back away silently, comforted as always by her nearness.
She stops humming and looks up, her eyes glowing with her mother’s love when she sees me.
“My beautiful Jessie, I have been waiting so long for this moment. Welcome home, my darling girl.”
Miss Abigail nods slightly and with a satisfied smile returns to watching over her realm and all her souls that are safely inside.
I turn back to Mom and laugh with an abandonment I have not felt in years.
I skip lightly down the aisle in search of my next adventure story, comfortable in the knowledge that I am indeed home, at last.