“Was he wearing a hat?”
“Maybe a round one, perhaps with a light on the front? You know, like the workmen on the tube wear.”
“Oh.” Laura looked sheepishly across the canteen table at her friend. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Not such a mystery after all then.” Rani grinned over the top of her coffee cup. “Have some more cake and forget about it.”
Laura and Rani often shared a slice of something at coffee break, and today it was an extremely sticky chocolate fudge masterpiece.
Laura licked her fingers thoughtfully and said “I think I might try and find out about this other underground track we were diverted onto, where exactly it went.”
Rani spread her hands wide, “Well you’re in the right place…”
They shared their workplace with 14 million books, all the research material you could ever wish for. Laura had been at the British Library in St Pancras for more than 3 years now. She’d met Rani on her first day as she tried to find her way around the maze of corridors, and as well as colleagues they had become good friends. They must have looked a rather incongruous pair. Laura always seemed reserved, and as Rani often pointed out she even dressed quietly, preferring to blend in to the background than draw attention to herself. Rani on the other hand would only blend in to an explosion in a paint factory, and for her there could never be enough attention.
“Anyway, you haven’t said anything about the new colour.”
Rani pouted slightly and tossed her head. Her hair was an achingly trendy asymmetric wonder, and this morning it was indeed a new shade of pink, which made a striking contrast to her monochrome checked minidress. Sometimes Laura wondered how they got on so well when they on the surface they seemed so different.
“It’s fabulous, as always.”
She pushed her chair back from the table and stood up, her own very long, very curly but resolutely mousey brown hair held back with an elastic band she’d taken from the stationery drawer.
“I’m going to head back, stuff to do and all that.”
“You mean your mystery man in his mystery tunnel!” Rani rolled her eyes. “Don’t waste too much time.”
But Laura did waste quite a lot of time over the next few days, even staying behind after her shift to trawl through the catalogues for any old information on the Underground system. She put in a request for some very dry sounding volumes from the transport collection that clearly hadn’t seen a reader’s eye in years, but they were in storage and wouldn’t arrive for a week. She pored over faded plans that she’d found in the map drawers in one of the reference rooms, but to no avail. She even braved the spinning of the microfilm machines to check out a couple of old newspaper articles that sounded vaguely promising, but all she got from that was a hefty dose of motion sickness.
In fact the one interesting thing she came across was notable only for the fact that it wasn’t there. It was listed on the system, or rather its reference number was. That told her it was stored off-site, but no amount of fiddling with the settings, nor even the help of Adrian from IT, could bring up any more details, or any way of ordering it from the system. It was a pamphlet from 1929 – An account of the necessary closure of certain tunnels on the Underground system– listed in the original card catalogue of an old collection donated to the Library in the 1930s. When she couldn’t use the automatic ordering system she rang the storage facility at Boston Spa, where most of the Library’s vast collection was now kept, and persuaded Tom one of the duty clerks to go and have a look. He rang her back the next day:
“I can see where it should be, but it isn’t there.”
“Is it out on loan then?”
“I don’t think so, but it’s a weird thing, there’s just a slip of paper in its space, and it says ‘Closed by authority 1953.’ “
“What does that mean?”
“I have no idea. And the even weirder thing is, there were other spaces as well, with the same slips of paper, and as I was looking around to see if I could find any notes or anything one of the security guards came marching in to see what I was up to.”
“Really?” Laura was intrigued.
“Yes, he must have seen me on the CCTV and he got down there pretty sharpish I can tell you. He was all sweaty and told me that I shouldn’t be poking about in that room because it’s restricted. Then he practically dragged me out.”
It was Friday afternoon and Laura had reached a dead end. Her friendly clerk in Boston Spa didn’t want to get into trouble, and there seemed to be nothing else to find in London. Perhaps Rani was right and she was wasting her time, but she hated the feeling of giving up. At five o’clock Laura shut down her computer and took her bag out from under the desk. Unclipping her security pass she pushed it into a side pocket next to her diary. And then she took out her diary, and quickly scribbled 1929 pamphlet, 1953 closed inside the back cover. “Just in case” she told herself as she made her way out of the building.
In no rush, rather than face the fetid hell of Friday night on the tube she decided to catch the slow bus home.