I close my eyes, and push open the doors of the library. Sunlight streams through the back windows, down the aisles and aisles of books, and hits my face. The warmth of that light is something I've never been able to recreate - always the same, always perfect. I think it's about 3pm here, and it's always sunny. The smell of old books hits me, an addictive smell, like teak oil on wood furniture, and I open my eyes again. It's bright, and the old windows distort the light, forming patterns on the floor. If I was underwater, looking up at the surface, this is how I would feel. Perfectly supported. Perfectly balanced. Light ripples like waves on the floor, dancing and playing with the dust in the air, and I breathe out, slowly. It’s tempting, sometimes, to stay in here for as long as I can, and just see what happens. Would I fall asleep in here, and wake up at home? Would I need to leave to eat and drink, or would I sustain on the books alone? One day, once the children are grown and my work is done, I’ll try it. Life is calm here, life is easy. My library.
The library stretches as far as the eye can see, rows and rows of books and objects lining shelves which seem to disappear into the distance, as elusive as a rainbow, when you get closer. At the front of each shelf is a small bronze plate, inscribed with a word. The one closest to me reads 'family'. Next to that is 'school'. One down from that, 'work'. These plaques, written in neat printed letters, adorn every shelf I can see. I know where I'm going.
Turning right, I start to walk down to the end of the library. My shoes tap on the floor, which is hardwood and glossy, but I know better than to look down. I keep my eyes straight ahead and walk towards a small black door hidden between two of the shelves.
The door has the same bronze label, but the font is different, a scrawl you might see on the back of a receipt. Written hurriedly, it can be difficult to read. I know what it says, though. miscellaneous.
I close my eyes, and push open the door.
This room looks a little like a supply closet. Without close inspection, you wouldn’t realise that these boxes aren’t filled with cleaning supplies but objects, letters, items of no value; a fact about Jenny, my ex-girlfriend’s sister; a file containing all of the baby names that my parents might have given me; two chess pieces my Grandad broke one particularly tumultuous holiday. Each is in its own file box, labelled randomly and in long, sweeping writing. My eyes flick over each in turn. ‘Wales, 1996, chatting with Maxine about the collapse of the USSR’. ‘That coffee order the man ahead of me in Starbucks wanted, what a twat’. ‘Billy’s fifth birthday party napkin design’. If you’re picturing a dodgy office backroom, you’re in the right place - fluorescent light bulbs flicker slightly, and the smell of damp is unmistakable. Grey, boring, cardboard boxes line cramped, dusty shelves. If it could, this room would make me sneeze. One box, a darker shade of grey than the rest, sits on its own on a higher shelf. I’ve always been curious as to how I should reach the shelf, why I designed it in this way, and why I didn’t think to install a ladder to let me get at it. I take down the box of Maxine’s USSR conversation, and stand on it to reach the top box. It’s always lighter than I expect.
The label is simple, and clearly printed, as if on a computer. ‘24/03/18. ?’
I take the lid off, and scrabble around inside, searching for anything to grab onto. Deep, cavernous spaces somehow fit inside this box, and I’m scared I’ve missed something - every corner seems sharp and uninviting, but I force myself to feel every part. I can’t see anything. I can’t feel anything. The box is empty, as it always is.
What have I forgotten?
Sammy told me about the day that box is from. I was walking home from work, she says, and I got hit by a car. I was rushed to the hospital, completely unconscious, and she says I was clinically dead for a few seconds - no heart rate, no breathing, no response - and that it was CPR that saved me. Thank god for the NHS, hey?
Somewhere, deep down, I know that’s not what happened.
I know this library better than the back of my hand. Every memory, every fact, everything is stored here. I read about these libraries when I was seventeen, ‘mind palaces’ the book called them, and here I am now. Often I add a new shelf, a new box, pictures, facts, files - sorted neatly into rows and rows and rows of information. Sometimes, something doesn’t quite fit, and it ends up here, in miscellaneous. But never, never, never have I had an empty box. Not when I went under for surgery, not when I had my boys, never. I understand what happened to me, I can file it.
Why is the box empty?
Sammy says it’s because I was clinically dead. My memory must have restarted, lost a chunk, something like that. Dan - ever the conspiracy theorist - says I was abducted by aliens.
I turn around and step out of the door. The box will be back where it was next time I’m here, like it always is. I tried to burn it once, but it was like trying to burn wet wood. Nothing happened. The library is still here, still intact, the aisles stretching into the distance and the sun as warm as before - but something feels missing. Three months ago, the box appeared. That was two months after the accident. Why then? What am I trying to tell myself? What is supposed to go in that box?
I close my eyes, and shut the doors of the library.