New library – new threat
Laura liked to walk from place to place in the central London if she possibly could, it was often quicker than taking public transport and there was always something to see. On her way to the Transport Museum this particular morning she heard the shrieks of happy children as she passed Coram’s Fields, and had to push through a small crowd of earnestly protesting students outside the LSE. Soon she reached Covent Garden and after negotiating her way past the chaos of hustlers, buskers and living statues she found her way to the entrance of the Transport Museum. And she’d made it without stepping on chewing gum or dog poo –result.
Walking from a busy street into a library was right up there among Laura’s top ten urban pleasures. As soon as the heavy door shut behind her she felt calm, the noise of the street was muffled now and almost immediately her nose picked up the unmistakeable, beautiful smell of old books.
She gave her list of the four titles she still needed to the girl behind the enquiry desk and found a space in a quiet corner to sit and start going through the two books she’s brought with her. The first one consisted mostly of technical information about the early underground trains, illustrated with incomprehensible yet strangely beautiful spidery drawings. The second appeared to be a rant about how the spread of the underground railway network would encourage the poor to travel further, this being a very Bad Thing apparently. As neither book was much use, Laura found the Museum Library catalogue and spotted a couple more things that sounded vaguely promising and wandered back to the enquiry desk to request them.
“I’ve got two more items to add to those other four please,” she smiled at the girl, who didn’t smile back. “Did you find them yet?”
The girl was now looking at Laura with an almost guilty expression.
“Umm, just wait there please,” she said before picking up the phone and muttering into the receiver, “that lady’s come back for those books.”
Almost before she’d put the phone down a door flew open and out came a small thin woman with iron grey hair, dressed in a severe black polo neck and black trousers. She immediately fixed a gimlet eye on Laura.
“Good afternoon,” (it was 12.01), “I am the library manager.”
“Hello,” replied Laura still smiling despite her growing sense of unease, “is there a problem?”
“I’m not sure, would you care to step into my office for a moment please.”
Laura got the feeling that this was not a request. What was it with these library harridans, first Olga and now this one, wherever did they get them from? Or maybe that was just what happened if you stayed too long as a librarian, perhaps that’s what she’d be like in twenty years. Now that thought was scarier than the black clad woman in front of her who gestured impatiently at Laura. She stopped worrying about her possible future as a library crone and followed the woman into the small office.
The library manager shut the door behind them and ushered Laura towards a chair which she found to be considerably lower than she’d expected. She sat down with rather a bump, ending up with her knees too high and feeling at a distinct disadvantage. The other woman seated herself behind her desk and looked down at Laura, as if waiting for an explanation. Laura started by asking nicely:
“I requested some material, is there some sort of issue with it?”
“Who asked you to get these items?” the woman spoke in a quiet but hard voice. Laura was instantly on edge.
“When you spoke to the desk you said that it was for the British Library, is that not the case?”
“I spoke to a girl not a desk.” Oops, how did that slip out?
“I beg your pardon?”
“Nothing, nothing. I do work at the British Library, but I just wanted the books myself.”
“To read them.” Laura was bored of being nice. “Look, I don’t know what the problem is here, but if you’ve lost these items” – the woman bristled – “or if you don’t want me to see them, that’s fine, I’ll just do my research elsewhere.”
“You won’t find anything.”
“Excuse me? You don’t know what I’m researching.”
“Would you like to tell me?”
Laura hesitated, “it’s … an engineering project.” She didn’t sound convincing, even to herself.
“Really? With that collection of titles I doubt it. But let me make myself perfectly clear, those books are not available, and you will not find whatever it is you think you are researching here, or in any other library, so I suggest you stop looking.” The woman’s voice was now barely louder than a whisper but there was no mistaking the intent.
Laura just sat and stared, incredulous. This small, grey haired, middle aged librarian was actually threatening her. She didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing, and pushed herself up awkwardly from the uncomfortable chair.
“Can I go now?”
“Please do. My colleague will show you out,” and the librarian turned to her computer and began to type. The strange encounter was clearly over.
When Laura opened the office door the girl from behind the enquiry desk was waiting with her arms full of Laura’s stuff.
“Miss Chapman asked me to help you with your things.”
At least she had the grace to look embarrassed as she handed Laura her bag, jacket and the two books she’d brought in with her.
“I’ll be going then,” Laura said as she shrugged on her jacket, picked up her bag and headed towards the door. As she reached for the handle she glanced back at the girl who was watching her from behind the desk. Catching her eye, the girl mouthed ‘sorry’ before hurriedly turning away.
“Well that, as my grandma would say, was a rum do,” Laura said to herself as she stepped outside.
Emerging from the library onto the crowded, noisy pavement, that feeling of separation from normality came washing over her again, just as it had on that bus ride home from Highgate Cemetery. She looked at the familiar street scene as if it was a foreign country, or was it she who was now foreign? Had what had just happened, and what she now knew, separated her from her old reality?
These philosophical musings were soon brought to an abrupt halt as Laura was jostled by a loud man in a loud suit shouting into his mobile phone, and she then stepped stickily into some freshly dropped gum as she tried to get out of his way. Quickly coming to her London senses Laura lowered her head, clutched her bag tightly to her body and launched herself assertively into the melee. Time to go home.