I was one of the first to move in when the old school was converted into flats. I happened to know the foreman of the site, and he showed me around the place when it was half done. I’ve seen photos of it from way back when. When it still smelled of books and pubescent sweat and academic nerves. When it was full of people, real and imagined.
In the photos the double height ceilings soar, flying far above the photographer’s head on the wings of thousands of books, which stack floor to ceiling, metres and metres of dark leather spines containing millions of words and ideas and fantasies and ghosts. There was a first floor walkway halfway up the wall, just a narrow, tense looking iron thing, with a spiral staircase to reach it, and ladders on runners to reach the highest shelves. Like a library from a storybook or a dream. There were eight enormous windows along the southern wall, so light flooded the lofty space, and there were rows of desks and chairs and brass lamps, and in the photos, serious looking children sit with their necks bent, studying the pages in front of them. One kid - my favourite - is halfway up a ladder, reaching for a book on a high shelf. I always wanted to know which book he was after. His arm is outstretched; he looks as if any second now, he’ll tumble off the ladder. You’d never get away with that in a school these days.
I fell in love with the library the minute I opened the dark wood double doors. As soon as it was finished I moved in, loving the feeling of walking around the echoey corridors alone, loving the journey up the stone staircase - which still felt most like a school, there’s just something about stairwells that can’t shake off the association of hurrying between classes, of being pushed past by older students. I loved the high ceilings and the remnants of fussy Victorian architecture and the brass plaque signage that had been carefully preserved by the builders.
It didn’t start happening straight away. I think I’d been living there a month when it began.
The rest of the old school had begun to fill up with new residents, some in smaller flats carved from teacher’s lounges and caretaker’s offices, some in more generous accommodation that had once been classrooms and headmaster’s quarters, and one wealthy bugger who’d moved into the converted gymnasium, which had enormous vaulted ceilings, skylights and beautiful original flooring. My library flat was small, but I liked it best. My library had been cut in half; I had just four windows along that south wall to let light in, and the wall that they’d put up in the middle was very plain, stark white. They had extended the original narrow walkway out into the middle of the room to make a mezzanine bedroom, and underneath the bedroom was a small kitchen, open to the rest of the room, and the old wrought iron staircase had been kept and spiraled up from next to the fridge. I had a bathroom downstairs, I had a view of the sunset (if I craned my neck a little), and best of all, they’d left the floor to ceiling bookshelves intact, so I had what felt like acres and acres of heavy, victorian wood shelves to store all my stuff, my books of course, but also my records and clothes and knick knacks and kitchenware and linens and plants and art and all sorts - they’d even built the bathroom around the shelves, and I’d take baths at night in the big claw-footed tub and gaze at those beautiful shelves, and wonder what they’d held over the years, before they held my toothbrush and bottles of shampoo and my soap and shaving kit.
One night I was returning home to my library after a long day at the office - I was working at an ad agency back then and my head was filled with slogans and deadlines and nothing nearly artful enough to belong in my beautiful library apartment, so I tried to shed it all mentally before I crossed the threshold. I was somewhat distracted as I opened the heavy door, and so it took me a moment to realise there was someone sitting on my leather armchair, next to my record player.
“Golly, old sport, who the hell are you?”
I dropped my briefcase, which burst open on the floor, spilling reams of paper and cocktail napkins and old artwork.
“What are you doing in my flat!” I yelled, and I panicked, and choked a little on my own tongue and felt adrenaline judder through my body like all my nerve endings were aflame - all the usual human impulses upon finding an intruder in one’s home. I said a lot more things to him, like “get out” and “I don’t have anything worth stealing” and “what do you mean, who am I?”
It didn’t take me long to realise I was clearly having some sort of a mental break, or a hallucination, or something. The stranger seemed quite content to sit in my chair and watch me as I frothed in front of him, his slicked back hair and beautifully cut suit giving him an air of extreme wealth and dignity that only seemed magnified by my panic and fluster. He told me to calm down, stood up, shook my hand - his hand went right through mine, but he didn’t seem to notice - and introduced himself as Jay Gatsby. Old sport.
Mr Gatsby didn’t return every night. No, sometimes when I returned from the office it would be Heathcliff (a strange, dour fellow), Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy (moody), Philip Marlowe (I liked Phil), or a relentlessly optimistic young redhead who never tired of talking even when I tried to go to sleep, who I worked out was Anne of Green Gables - though I’d never read it - from her frequent mention of the house, which she seemed to miss dearly. Once I walked in on Marlowe and Sherlock Holmes engaged in a combative game of chess. They were each unable to move the pieces and seemed to be playing the game via vivid imaginings, and it had escalated to shouting. I ended up dropping my briefcase and heading straight back out the door.
If it was a hallucination, it was going on for an awful long time. I’d been living in the flat for a few months by this point, and my visitors were almost nightly. They’d arrive, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs - from the same source usually, but sometimes, as in the case of Marlowe and Sherlock, there could be a crossover event. I tried to ignore them at first, but they’d engage me in conversation - ask me my opinions on whatever they were debating, and when I’d ignore them they’d get quite upset with me, and I really didn’t want to anger them - who knew what they were capable of? I drank whisky with Nick and Jay (they, somehow, produced their own), I clapped for Tinkerbell, I discussed literature and diamonds with Lorelei Lee (quite a woman - she knew little of the former, but unsurprisingly, plenty about the latter), I told Rhett Butler I didn’t much like his attitude.
They seemed to know they weren’t real. By which I mean, they seemed to know they were characters in books. It was when a pleasant, chubby cat began to visit - slinking around my ankles at night and curling up on my pillow with his large, toothy grin, that I began to form any kind of attachment to them. I couldn’t pet the Cheshire Cat, exactly, but he was good company, and I found his purring inordinately soothing - and the visitors - they could pet him. I found I wanted them to. I found I looked forward to having them around, to hear their strange conversations drifting up to my balcony bed from where they tended always to sit, downstairs, grouped around the record player.
I soon began working from home more often than not, so I could spend more time with my strange new flatmates. It was always the same people, you understand. We got to know each other. Beatrice and Benedick would bicker in my shower, Sherlock would prowl around my sock drawers and Juliet would sit at the top of the spiral staircase, calling down to Romeo, as if he wasn’t just sitting on the bottom step looking adoringly up at her. I successfully convinced Miss Havisham to stay away from my lit cigarettes, my candles and especially the oven. Elizabeth Bennett talked me through mending a button on my shirt. Clarissa Dalloway, despite my protestations, planned a wonderful dinner party for my birthday (I had to phone for a takeaway, but the guest-list was exquisite).
I finally asked - it was Atticus Finch, I think - what exactly they were all doing here. He told me they were misplaced. I told him “you can say that again” but he didn’t laugh. I asked Mercutio when he visited the next day, but you could never get a straight answer out of him - pun after pun after pun. It was Nick Carraway who suggested to me that Finch’s “misplaced” reference was literal. They were all from books which hadn’t been returned to the library when it was a library. He looked all misty and told me how he and Jay and Daisy had all once sat snugly on that shelf over there, until a girl with red lips and honey gold hair had taken them home and lost them under her bed.
“Do you know where you are now?” I asked. “I mean - the book - I mean - do you know what I mean?”
“I do,” he nodded seriously. “We exist somewhere still in that house, I suppose.”
“Is that why you come here?” I asked. “Do you need to be - returned to the library?”
“I don’t know,” he pondered. “I like it here. There’s always a conversation worth overhearing.”
This wasn’t especially illuminating, but it gave me a bit of direction. I started looking into the history of the school, where they’d moved to after this old place had been abandoned, who the librarians were and if the records had been kept.
As it turned out, the records were kept. The girl with red lips and honey gold hair was an old woman now, the honey gone grey but the lips still red, the eyes still filled with sparkles. She was astonished when I found her and started asking about overdue library books. I felt quite bad, I think she honestly thought I might be trying to swindle her out of her retirement or something, but when I spoke about her old school library and the shelves and ladders and spiral staircases she invited me in and let me have a poke around on her bookshelves. There it was, tucked away between a Bronte and a Hemingway (neither of which had belonged to the school; I checked) and sure enough on the inside was a list of names and dates, with hers the last - checked out many Decembers ago.
“I liked it well enough,” she’d said, bemused. “I never meant to keep it though. Didn’t think I’d get chased up for it this late in the game.”
“A good librarian never forgets,” I’d said, and she’d smiled.
“Is there a late fee?” she asked. “I don’t think I could afford it.”
“No fee,” I’d said, and took the book home, where I placed it on the shelf Nick had pointed at.
I never saw him again, or Jay, or Daisy. I suppose that was the point, but I missed them terribly, even Daisy, whom I’d never liked on paper, but in person had found her quite mesmerising. I suppose that was the point as well. I never tried to track down another lost book. I didn’t want to lose any more friends.
I asked my neighbour once - the person in the other half of the library - if they ever noticed anything strange about the place. She had a wild look in her eye, and dark circles under them, and she giggled a little hysterically before saying no, nothing strange, not at all, why do you ask. I didn’t pursue it further, and she moved out soon after. I’ve had hundreds of neighbours come and go over the years I’ve lived here. Nobody seems to like the company like I do.
I’ve been saving my money. I want to buy the flat next door and take the wall down. I can’t wait to meet the characters that visit that side of it. Part of me hopes there’s another lost Gatsby over there; I’ve missed them terribly over the years - we all have. I’m an old man now, and I can’t manage the stairs like I used to. I’ll keep the upstairs for Juliet and the rest. I always meant to fall in love, but I became stuck between the pages of books instead. I suppose, in that, I fell in love hundreds of times. I always meant to use this place for fabulous parties, with all my advertising friends, and later my bohemian photographer friends and the musicians I knew and the writers and artists and many others I thought could be fascinated as I was by the strange phenomenon that occurred after dark in my home. I hardly ever had anyone over though, and I told no-one. It was a wonderful secret to keep, all these years. I worry what will happen to my beloved friends when I’m gone, but for now, I sit next to the record player with Philip and Sherlock and Benedick and Bea and the rest, and we talk about their worlds and mine. If only I was a book that someone would forget to return, I believe I could stay here forever.