Despite our best efforts, Emily and I were no nearer starting a family or finding a replacement to manage the Library. She was eager for stability, and my unwillingness to commit and guarantee a departure date was a source of contention. Emily refused to believe that I couldn’t just serve my notice and leave.
‘It’s not like you’re saving lives, Jim,’ she’d say. ‘You’re a librarian, for God’s sake.’
I’d accepted the post a year before meeting Emily and adored my work. The first time she appeared, I recall being on the granite steps outside the entrance. It was a summer’s day, and she had a knee-length frock and shoulder length hair that drifted on the breeze. I was about to enjoy my lunch in the garden after locking the front door.
‘Hey, buddy!’ she said. ‘Who’s in charge round here?’
‘What? Oh, that’s me,’ I said, blinking as I turned to face her. ‘How can I---’
‘I’m looking for a local map and guidebook.’
‘We’re not that sort of library,’ I said, shrugging my shoulders.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Frowning, she pursed her lips.
‘We’re closed for lunch,’ I said, and she snorted. ‘Would you care for a sandwich?’
She accepted my offer with a perfunctory nod and followed me into the communal garden. Sitting down at a wooden bench, I told her it wasn’t a typical lending library; I was curating a collection of unpublished books. Emily arched a defined eyebrow and munched on her egg and mayo roll.
‘We have books of local interest,’ I said, biting my lip. ‘But they’re not really guides.’
I clarified my role in the library as an earnest young girl and her mother approached. They paused nearby and a gentle hand steered the youngster towards me.
‘Mr Barker, this is Clea.’
‘Hello, Clea,’ I said, greeting her with a smile. ‘Do you have something for me?’
‘Yes, Mr Barker.’ She handed me a padded envelope. ‘It’s my cat book.’
‘Cats, you say?’ I extracted a twenty-page document. ‘You made this yourself?’
‘Yes, and it’s about the cats in my street,’ she said, furrowing her brow. ‘I’ve described them all and drawn their portraits, too.’
‘You have been busy,’ I said, examining the work as Emily nudged up next to me.
‘It’s taken me twelve weeks and I want everyone to know about it.’
‘We’ll have to find a special place where people can see it.’ I glanced at Emily and caught a glint in her eye. ‘Would you like to choose a shelf, Clea?’
I registered the Clea’s book on the library management system and we found a perfect spot for it, between a ‘The Compendium of Small Mammals’ and ‘A Guide to Household Pets.’ After Clea and her mother departed, I caught Emily’s attention by clearing my throat.
‘You know what?’ I said. ‘The best way to see this collection is by the light of a full moon.’
‘Oh, yeah?’ she said, chuckling. ‘When’s the next waxing gibbous?’
‘Well, as it happens---’
‘Funny that, isn’t it?’
I got some groceries delivered and prepared a romantic meal for two. Afterwards, I gave her a tour of the library by candlelight. She couldn’t stop smiling all night and we talked until the eastern hills were ablaze.
Emily didn’t stay the first night and parted bleary eyed after we said farewell by rubbing our noses together. After two more dreamlike episodes, she agreed to join me on my mission. Emily gave her landlady a month’s notice and we’ve been cohabiting here ever since.
For a year we couldn’t have been happier. She continued with her research work at the University and I assumed everything was fine. However, the library’s architect hadn’t designed the compact living quarters for a couple and it proved to be an issue. It didn’t fit into Emily’s life plan for a start.
After two years, she’d had enough. Emily wanted us to have our own home. I explained it wasn’t that simple. I had agreed to be available twenty-four hours a day. It was in the library’s job description. It was obligatory.
Emily despised the heavy brass bell clanging at all hours of the night. She couldn’t understand why the gentle trickle of wannabe authors couldn’t deposit their creations during normal office hours. I agree that their chaotic appearances disjointed our private life. It was as if we were waiting for trains that never came.
‘For God’s sake, Jim,’ she’d say, shaking her head. ‘Who’s in charge here?’
‘They’ve always done it like this, love.’ I’d sigh, reaching out to her.
‘It all needs bringing up to date, Jim.’
‘It’s just the way it is, love.’
‘They’re in another world.’
The previous librarians employed neither the Dewey Decimal nor a basic K-12 system. For decades, they’d kept a series of hand written ledgers to record new admissions. I’d bluffed my way through the interview, but they offered the post with immediate effect when they discovered I had IT qualifications. My employers recognised they had antediluvian records and tasked me with modernising the operation. They had lofty ambitions that involved creating a website, advertising the library’s service and promoting it with a daily blog, too.
As good as I was with computers, I’d little experience managing a library or maintaining a sizable garden. However, I’d hated my two years of crowded commuter trains and the live-in role suited me. Working from home had always appealed to me.
I agreed to a month’s probation and signed a vague contract of undefined length.
They handed me the literary baton and entrusted me to designate a replacement should I resign. Like an endless relay race, they employed me with no end in sight.
The day of the annual library picnic coincided with my third work anniversary and two years since Emily moved into the Library. I’d designed posters and posted invitations in advance. We had a sense of expectation and excitement as we received confirmations and offers of help. It promised to be a joyful experience for all who attended the event. Emily organised all the food, and I erected the trestle tables, set up chairs and strung up fairy lights between the apple trees.
We had a half a dozen regular contributors and expected them before midday, pitching in to help wherever necessary. Robby Feldman was the first to arrive and provided a supply of homemade cider in two large oak barrels. He was a grizzled old stoner who visited us every fortnight with a new chapter of his unwieldy autobiography and a set of recollections. In between times, he’d find a quiet corner and snooze his way through the day. If Robby’s snoring got unbearable, we’d suggest the meeting room’s sofa next to the coffee machine. He knew his way around a Gaggia and helped dispense espressos and lattés upon request, accompanied by sage advice from simpler times.
Emily’s favourite old lady was the esteemed Agatha Hunter who’d transcribed her lifetime’s recipes into a series of beautiful books that contained exquisite pen and ink illustrations of exotic ingredients and step-by-step guides to culinary techniques. They’d often while away an afternoon chatting about household management and Agatha would regale Emily with tales about her life in the big West End hotels and restaurants.
The younger crowd included the two Robinson lads, who were sports fanatics. They appeared twice a month and handed over their artwork for soccer kits. Their books were often grubby and required cleaning before reaching the shelves. There were one or two poets like Bobby Nutbeam, who was serious beyond his years, and the inimitable Tom Brewster, who produced volumes of monster pictures and zombie handbooks. We expected a crowd of kindergarten children who created illustrated family albums and inventories of wild flowers; young Sandy Scott preferred insect collections, and David Rosser produced inventories of hoof and paw prints, as if he was a survivalist or wild animal tracker.
Emily welcomed everyone as they arrived with their picnic blankets and deck chairs. She loved entertaining the children and as I wandered round talking to our guests and offering them drinks, I noticed her reading picture books to a group of toddlers.
I know longed for her own children and a family; not endless feasting with friends. The clock was ticking, and I ignored its chimes. My time was running out.
I didn’t get the hints or maybe ignored them; the constant baking, shelf dusting and nest building went over my head. I allowed time to ooze past as I dawdled in my Ciceronian paradise; content in my library and garden. While Emily organised her stitchin’ n bitchin’ sessions and lady’s library nights, I scanned and catalogued the contents of the library and tended to the surrounding garden, oblivious to time and tide.
The final crunch came when Robby Feldman stood up at the picnic and raised a glass to salute the librarian and his girlfriend. He was never shy about speaking his mind.
‘Let’s thank our esteemed hosts, everyone!’ He roared over the assembled cacophony. ‘Here’s to Jim and Emily and to a feast of friends.’
‘To a feast of friends!’ Everyone cheered.
‘Better than a giant family!’ Robby roared again, catching Emily’s sober eye.
I raised my glass as everyone cheered.
‘For God’s sake,’ she said, turning to face me. ‘Grow up, why don’t you?’
By the time the party was over and everyone had left for home, Emily had gone. She’d packed and disappeared whilst I was entertaining our guests and propping up Robby. There was no letter, explanation or forwarding address. It wasn’t until much later that I found the discarded white plastic stick under her pillow. Its fading blue cross winked at me like the flashing light of an ambulance disappearing into the night.
Our living library was a carnival of souls where one could leave an indelible mark and register one’s existence. It was a hangover from an innocent time before idealism succumbed to materialism’s foul stain. After it closed down, I felt as if we’d been swept out to sea in the wake of an oceanic behemoth that had vanished forever beneath the brine.