It was a phrase that kept cropping up at the Helpful Hub, as it was somewhat tweely, but undeniably accurately described. Once a Library, always a Library. It was six years now since the library in the little market town had moved to its new building complete with the glass atrium and computer suite, and four years since the building had been taken over by a local charity. All of the bookshelves had gone. The former Reference Library upstairs had been converted into a conference room, and in the little alcove where the children’s library had once stood, there was a little alcove where people could have a talk in semi-privacy. And yet it still, somehow felt like a library. Even those new to the town, on learning it had once been one, were not remotely surprised. In a bow to its past, there was still a discreet old black and white photo of the library in the 1950s enlarged and framed on one of the side walls.
Of course, Marianne could remember when it had been a library. She had been one of its most frequent users, and sometimes had to smile at the thought that she had always thought, when she was a child (well, when she wasn’t thinking about being a teacher or being an astronaut or being a lifeguard) that she would work in a library one day. Although, of course, she wasn’t, it still sometimes felt as if she were.
Anyway, she’d had a bit of a domestic emergency, and needed a hole in her roof fixing. It was winter, and though not exactly arctic, there were still those nasty squalls of sleet and chill that seem to penetrate even a roof, let alone a hole in the roof. So she decided (it would be fixed by the next day) that she would spend the night on the couch at work. It was no especial hardship. She had sofa-surfed before now, and on ones that were less comfortable. There wasn’t a shower there, but there was a generous sized wash basin and she wasn’t likely to end up smelling! She knew she could have done the same again, or even booked into a guest house for the night, but didn’t see the point. There was even a little kitchen there now. Of course there was some good natured teasing about people thinking she was a burglar, but she could live with it!
The place seemed bigger with only her in it. Oh, it wasn’t the first time, but in working hours, even if she was in sole charge, which happened occasionally, and even if there were no clients in at the time, it was as good as certain that someone would come, if only to use the photocopier or public access laptops, or just for a chat. And there would be people passing by, and shops open opposite the building and to the other side. As the early winter dusk fell, and as the throng outside gradually dwindled, something strange seemed to happen to the sound in the building. Noises didn’t exactly echo, and weren’t exactly distorted (Marianne found herself clapping her hands, or jangling her keys, just to see how it sounded and to try to convince herself she was imagining things) but they seemed to be, somehow, quieter and louder at the same time, clearer and yet slightly blurred. It wasn’t really unnerving, but Marianne put on the radio on the laptop. The sound from that, oddly, was just as it should be, without that indefinable but definite difference. That’s better, she thought. She went to make herself a mug of coffee. The sound of the kettle wheezing ever so slightly as it boiled was entirely normal. Well, the kitchen was smaller, wasn’t it? It was just some slight acoustic quirk, and nothing at all to worry about.
She got out the packet of sandwiches she had bought, and retuned the computer radio, deciding to catch up on some episodes of a drama serial she had missed. But it couldn’t capture her interest. She was in a space that was familiar to her, and where she had always enjoyed working, and yet she didn’t like it. She felt restless and yes, that unease was beginning to mount. She was on the point of decamping and going down to the Grey Gables Guest House, only five doors down the road. She didn’t have enough cash on her to pay for a room, and wasn’t sure if they took plastic, and the weather had worsened – the sleet had turned to snow, and a wind had got up, so she didn’t fancy a trek to the nearest ATM – and as likely as not, it’d be out of action anyway! But she knew Kathy and Clive, and was as good as certain they’d take her on trust. She googled the Guest House and saw cosy little rooms with floral duvet covers and large, fluffy towels. She had picked up the keys she had jangled, and was on the point of gathering her things together, and braving a couple of minutes in the snowstorm to find the haven of one of those cosy little rooms. But then, determinedly, she stopped. She told herself not to be silly. Though it wasn’t a posh expensive hotel, the Grey Gables wasn’t dirt cheap either, and even now, out of season, a room would cost her £40. She could afford it, just, but meaning no disrespect to Kathy and Clive, she had better things to spend her money on when she had a comfortable couch in a warm room, and no need to go out into the snow. Though she worked with the public, and liked it, she had never been a person who minded her own company. I hope that tarpaulin over the roof holds, she thought, with visions of going home to find her home weather-ravaged. But she had no need to worry. Chris wasn’t a cowboy builder, he was reliable and honest, and if he told her it would be safe, then it would be. All ways round, there was no reasonable excuse for leaving her bolthole. Earlier on in the day she had positively looked forward to it! Well, maybe not exactly looked forward to it. What was the more or less compulsory disclaimer? – I’m not that sad!
Perhaps I am that sad, thought Marianne, and the thought that had started as a self-deprecating joke maliciously mutated into something that was not a joke at all. She did not want to be in that empty library building, by herself. She did not want it in the least. But even if there had not been a hole in her roof, she would not have wanted to go home, and even if it had been a warm spring evening, and money had been no object, she would not have wanted to go to the Grey Gables Guest House. A malign mixture of restiveness and inertia seemed to seep into her mind and into her very bones. It was as if the very fabric of the building taunted her with all that had gone wrong in her life, and all that would never be right again, and how much of it was her own fault.
The futility of her life was a leaden weight and a cruel whisper. Oh yes, she knew that people expressed gratitude to her, said she helped them, but it was only true in the most superficial and transient sense. She had no illusions, or such that she might once have had shrivelled in a dark and starkly bright place of her mind. If she were not at the Helpful Hub, somebody else would be, and if it came to it, what did she actually do? She didn’t risk her life, or even suffer any discomfort. She didn’t run into burning buildings, or hang on a winch from a helicopter to save a stricken person on a mountainside. She didn’t spend long hours in a claustrophobic operating theatre wearing suffocating PPE to fight for the lives of the stricken. She didn’t even face anything that would have made her natural squeamishness rebel, or her natural tendency to inertia be roused to activity. She made sympathetic noises. She passed phone numbers on. She looked things up on a laptop and occasionally filled a form in.
Her biological clock wasn’t ticking, because it had stopped. It had stopped almost apologetically, or at any rate, wearily, and she’d had a very easy “change of life”. In itself, that didn’t bother her. She liked children well enough, and got on with them, but didn’t have a strong maternal instinct. But she had once heard a German expression – Torschlusspanik – fear of a door being slammed; the door in question being, of course, figurative.
She had got used, or thought she had, to a life that was bearable, that did not make her do anything she didn’t want to, but was a husk and a veneer of a life.
Oh, please God, let me find something to distract me, she thought, and in a way it was both a figure of speech and a genuine prayer. She had lost the thread of the drama. She wasn’t interested in the news. In the end she found a reading of a book she had read many times over.
Perhaps I should just try to sleep, she thought, to sleep with someone telling me a story, and then it won’t be too long until morning, even though the sun rises late at the moment.
But she didn’t know if she was in any hurry for it to be morning, either. She stretched out on the couch. The building was warm. She’d been told it was okay to leave the heating on overnight, and it was well insulated. Yet she wanted something to pull round her, something to snuggle under. She took her coat off the peg and tried to use it for that purpose, but it didn’t work.
She switched the lights off, and then only a few minutes later, switched them on again, blinking in the unforgiving fluorescent glow.
She switched them off again, but the eldritch green glow of the security lighting seemed to intensify and to distort the darkness. Marianne told herself it was no wonder that her imagination was beginning to play tricks with her. She was over-wrought and feeling wretched, and yet she didn’t know why she felt so utterly wretched, because nothing in her life had actually changed. That made it worse. She could not think, I have a terrible pain, but with pills and time it will go away, or, I have no money, but I’ve been totally broke before and come out on the other side.
The room had not quite turned back into the library. It was more like the silhouette of a library. Shapes formed where the shelves had been, and the smaller tables of the hub were replaced with the larger ones of the library.
Marianne, stumbling and hurtling, lethargic and restless, felt herself drawn from the couch to the wall where the discreet historical picture of the building was hung. There used to be a desk here, she thought, and there used to be a computer, not one like we have now, one that was old fashioned even then, looking more like a little portable television. She’d not had her own computer at home then, back before there was even talk of the library closing, but she was computer literate, though it had been “force fed” her on a course, and she didn’t know if she would have become so of her own volition. But she had become quite dependent on them quite quickly, and by then they were built into her routine more or less every day. But it was not to surf the internet, that was, of course, not the massive and all-encompassing Internet it was to become, but there would still have been enough on it to capture her interest, or there would have been, before her whole being, her heart, her mind, and her soul, became fixated on the one person, the centre of her universe, the one who could do no wrong, even if others said he did.
She used to take little sheets of paper with her (they didn’t have a printer in the library at that point) and scribble the details, the words, that confirmed all was fine, over and over, signing her name on them, and an odd little cipher, SDML – Seen Definitely, Marianne Lomax.
But then that day came, and it was a day very much like that day, though it was January, and not November, when the words were not the ones that she was used to seeing, and were not the words that reassured her, and were not the ones that kept her little half word well. They were words of betrayal, words that mocked, words that simply could not be true, words that made no sense – and yet made a horrible kind of sense.
She had walked out of the library. She had held, and the person confirmed could have confirmed it, a perfectly sensible conversation with a friend of hers, something banal about the buses always running late.
And her life had stopped that day. Nobody else knew it, and they would probably never have guessed at the reasons. She had grown older, and had made the kind of mistakes that good-hearted people said anyone could make, and found a routine that muffled the voices.
Marianne curled up on the floor in the building that had once been the library, and she howled. It was an animal sound, not a human one. Nobody could hear her. Nobody else was awake on the High Street, and the walls were thick. At least that was one thing she could do there she could not have done at the Grey Gables, nor even at home.
She howled, and she muttered phrases that were both comprehensible and incomprehensible, and she rocked to and fro, until her eyes hurt, and her throat hurt, and her knees, those knees that were not old, but were not as young as they once were, ached and were cramped from being on the floor. Finally, she had howled herself out. She stood up, clumsily, stiffly, and saw, in the still strange, but not so sinister, green-tinged darkness, that the room had taken on its more recent contours again.
She was not exactly calm, and not exactly quieter in her mind, but she stumbled back to the couch, pulled the coat over her, and finally fell into a dreamless sleep or one whose dreams she would not recall, listening to a story she almost knew off by heart.
She still woke before the dawn, went to the bathroom, tried to splash her face with cold water into some semblance of normality, made a strong mug of coffee.
Her colleagues and those of the clients who knew about her night in the building would ask her how it was. She would tell them it was fine, highly recommended. There was no point to doing anything else.