The Boss is humming to herself. Quite audibly. Sometimes the humming gives way to words, which gradually dismantle themselves and become humming once more.
‘Dancing Queen, young and free and the tambourine…dancing queen, you can da daa da hmm hmm hmmmm.’
‘Oh god,’ says Linda, ‘is she delirious?’
‘Deliriouuuussss’ sings The Boss. ‘616.8’ she says.
‘I don’t know,’ says Mike. ‘Part of her is certainly still functioning. Maybe a cup of tea will sharpen her up.’
‘I think she might need something a bit stiffer than that,’ says Linda.
‘Stiffer’ says The Boss. She sighs. ‘Belle comma Monica’
‘Oh my god that’s the Black Lace she’s on about. We need to hurry, Mike; she’s definitely not well.’
The commotion in the staff area below suddenly gains substance on the penultimate staircase. Linda and Mike look at each other in horror.
‘Oh no,’ he says.
‘We must have run out of customer feedback slips,’ says Linda.
‘Or something worse,’ says The Boss, still smiling. ‘Something Much Worse.’
The trio hears the growl in unison as they descend the final staircase; it sounds a bit like a man. A man being strangled. They press on in trepidation.
The disheveled silhouette of John is gradually revealed with each downward step. He is holding aloft something large and yellow. Beyond him The Borrowers are swarming towards them like angry daytime TV chefs, but John barely seems to be aware of them.
The growl becomes a roar.
The lift chimes as the doors open.
Rosalyn has a plan. She abandoned Garry up there, up there alone to fight their battle. Alone with Bob and Katerina and John. But Rosalyn knows what it’s like to be abandoned, rejected, left behind. She knows how that feels, and it feels like trying to play table tennis with only one player. And Rosalyn won’t do that to Garry. She’s going to be his hero, just as Garry is hers.
The basement holds no sanctuary anymore. Under the cold fluorescent strip lights everything looks plastic and lifeless. It used to be a living, breathing world, with green hair ribbons and red leather gloves. Now it’s just a poorly ventilated storage room with broken glass all over the floor.
Rosalyn shunts a wasted monitor off a wheeled computer desk and pulls it out from the wall. She drags it over to the book maze. The walls of the book maze are over six feet high. There must be enough ammunition down here to hold out for an entire weekend – perhaps even a bank holiday. There are some really flimsy volumes at the top, like individual Shakespeare plays, but down at the foundation lie the behemoths like The Complete Works, the original 1606 King James Bible and The Complete Illustrated Lord of the Rings. Rosalyn topples the wall and begins to load the desk.
She doesn’t hear the lift chime. She doesn’t hear the whine of the doors as they slide open. She doesn’t hear Bob’s tentative footstep on the concrete floor.
She hears Bob say ‘Rosalyn?’ in a long forgotten sort of way and she pauses mid-stack. ‘Rosalyn, I –’
She resumes her task. Heroes remain calm under pressure. Heroes maintain focus.
‘Rosalyn, I – will you stop what you’re doing and listen to me?’ Bob reaches out for her shoulders, but Rosalyn shrugs him off with a grunt. The computer desk is almost full.
‘Rosalyn, please, I…I came down here to apologise…I mean I should have done it years ago, I know, I just…I’m not very good at this…’
Rosalyn looks up and grips the edge of the computer desk. She begins to wheel it towards Bob, who takes a couple of steps back. Then a couple more.
‘Rosalyn, what on earth are you doing? Don’t you understand, I’m trying to…I’m trying to –’ Bob takes another step back and is in the lift, with its unfamiliar hum and mysterious lingering odour of sellotape. Rosalyn continues wheeling the book-laden computer desk into the lift, forcing Bob against the back wall.
‘Bob,’ she says, ‘that’s ancient history. Forget about that now, and help me win this war.’
‘Right,’ says Bob, as the lift doors shudder closed. Then, ‘That’s pigging right, m’lady,’ he says, tipping an imaginary hat.
A faint growl begins to sound just before the lift doors open. Bob springs astride the computer trolley, gripping onto the edge with his left hand and brandishing The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Second Edition in his right. Rosalyn is poised behind, ready to charge.
The lift chimes as the doors open.
The growl becomes a roar.
"There, there", she says, patting his back. "Everything will be alright."
Katerina listens to the platitudes escaping her lips with increasing incredulity. Her panicked brain, cowering with fear in the base of her skull, is amazed: it is as if the soothing, mannered tones are being uttered by someone else. Maybe I should have been a nurse, she thinks, or a bomb disposal person, someone who needs to stay calm in desperate situations. Maybe you need to measure yourself against the crazy stick, shouts another, more cynical, part of her mind.
John's wails grow louder, the smell of singed hair and burnt skin rising from his ruined face.
There's always Google, thinks Katerina. That may save us yet.
She pokes her head above her barricade. Garry looks back at her from his position at the defences, his eyes wild and, with his grey shirt partially untucked and red tie loosened, looking somewhat heroic in her mind. Garry’s gaze flicks momentarily to John, and back to her.
“Get out of here! I’ll hold them off for as long as I can, go downstairs, anywhere!”
The Borrowers form an advancing wall beyond the barricade, a duffel-coated, cagoule-wearing, semi-washed horde topped with shapeless grey faces. They chant in unison, waving books in the air like burning torches, shuffling and stomping their feet. They look… relentless, like no Suggestions Box in the world would be big enough to hold all of their complaints.
“Get up, John. We’ve got to go!”
Extracting herself from John’s wiry embrace, she struggles to her feet, and half-carries, half-drags him towards the lift. Falling to the floor, John grips her ankle, his wails becoming more piercing. Katerina drags him onwards, reaching out for the lift call button, stretching her fingers toward the ‘DOWN’ button, reaching, grasping. A book crashes into the lift doors, just missing her head. Another strikes her back, knocking the breath from her lungs; she slaps the lift call button as she falls to the floor, winded. The books rain down on and around them, and Katerina covers her head, curling into a ball, sharp jabs of pain coming from the corners of books as they strike her back.
John crawls forward, seemingly unaffected by the barrage, until a book strikes him square on the back of his head, knocking him down.
Peering through her fingers, Katerina watches as the book slides slowly off his head, the cartoonish yellow cover depicting a man holding his finger aloft in inspiration. The thick book flops to the ground, landing cover-upwards beneath John’s good eye.
Katerina reads the title.
She covers her eyes, and wraps her arms tightly around her head.
John reads the title of the book.
Google Search & Rescue For Dummies.
His wailing transmutes into a growl.
He picks up the book with white-knuckled hands and gets to his feet. Thrown books bounce off him. He adjusts the cardigan draped over his shoulders.
The growl becomes a roar.
The lift chimes as the doors open.
Garry’s yells echo back to him from the closing lift doors, and Bob’s apologetic face disappears from view just as volume four of the Encyclopedia Britannica bounces against the metal, leaving a nasty dent.
Garry rips open another linguaphone set, flinging the CDs at the approaching tide of Borrowers. One disc finds its mark, dropping the Borrower to the floor, but the others defend themselves by using books as shields.
“Shit”, Garry curses through clenched teeth, “they’re learning.”
He ducks as volume five of the Encyclopedia Britannica tumbles end over end, like an ungainly tomahawk, through the space where his head had just been. The chanting grows louder; filling his ears and rattling his ribs, urging his buckling knees to carry him to a place far away from here. Garry wishes he had enough Clingfilm to cover all the borrowers, to seal them up and contain them, to prevent them spreading their anger and violence and germs any further.
Garry picks up the Encyclopedia and hurls it back at the mob, taking out two Borrowers, falling like skittles.
Katerina’s blond head peeks over her barricade, her eyes wide with fear. John’s singed head is just visible, still buried between Katerina’s breasts. Garry looks at John’s trembling head and thinks: at least someone is in a good place right now.
“Get out of here! I’ll hold them off for as long as I can, go downstairs, anywhere!” Garry hurls a selection of hardback Asterix books at the advancing horde to little effect. Katerina nods, and begins to drag John towards the lift, heavy reference books crashing around them like literary cannonballs.
Garry turns back towards the Borrowers to see them push his barricade out of the way, their ink-stained, germ-riddled hands reaching out towards him. Snatching up a returns trolley, he pushes them back with it, feeling a satisfying crunch as the corner of the trolley connects with a knee. Then they are all around him and the smell of Scotch eggs fills his nostrils as everything goes dark.
Now, a while back, we advertised for the post of Library Assistant. This post was to cover Jenn, who is going on secondment for a few months. We are pleased to announce the successful applicant was Duncan Cheshire , already a part-time volunteer at SH. Welcome to the team, Duncan!
Bob doesn't feel right. It isn't the War taking place all around him. It isn't the fact that he is clearly Past His Peak and is probably going to be required to engage in hand to hand combat. It isn't that the Health and Safety Bint is probably going to turn up any second and Have A Field Day. It isn't even Garry, who is laughing and throwing whatever he can get his hands on over the top of the table and looking like he's having a Pigging Good Time.
All right. It is partly Garry. Beside him, Bob feels somehow shrivelled.
But mainly, it is Rosalyn. Now she's gone, there's a strange feeling in his chest. Not quite his chest. More the top of his stomach. He opens a Linguaphone set and flings the CDs over the table like Frisbees. There are some satisfying squeals and splattering sounds that let him know he's made contact, but it isn't pleasing him.
What's that feeling? It can't be indigestion - he skipped dinner and never managed to get his Creatine shake.
Shit, Bob thinks, it's pigging guilt. That's what it is.
'Garry,' Bob says, and pushes the rest of the CDs into his hands, 'I've got to get down to the Basement. Can you cover me?'
Garry is panting, throwing books out like there's no tomorrow. Bob is impressed with his aim, his flair, his system. He answers without taking his eyes from the targets.
'You're not going down there, amigo. She's mine, and as soon as I get this clear,' Garry slices five CDs through the air and takes two borrowers down, 'I'm going to get her.'
'Course she's yours,' Bob says, 'but there's something I need to tell her. Man to man. An apology.'
'Is this really the time?' That's Katerina. John has buried his face in her chest. He is howling. He's either really, really pleased, or really, really frightened. Katerina ducks now and again, while patting his back.
'Don't think I can spare you, partner,' Garry says, 'they'll breach this line if you leave it.'
Bob stands behind the table. The borrowers are advancing. For every one they manage to lay out, there seem to be five more to take his place. All chanting. But Rosalyn is down there, down in the dark. And Bob knows he needs to make things right with her. It could be his last chance.
'Sorry Garry,' Bob says, and throws himself to the floor.
He crawls on his belly towards the lift. It's an elementary move - first thing they teach you in the TA. But there were gaps in his Basic Training. Matters of the Heart. They should have had a module on that, but it was never covered. How to be a gentleman. How to turn down someone's advance nicely.
Love isn't the same as war, just like books and DVDS are two different things and have different cataloguing systems, Bob realises. Hearts. Perhaps there is a book in the library about it, but for now, he's going to get down to the Basement and Be A Man.
The Boss is mainly unconscious, but every now and again she opens her eyes and mutters something about War, about the Shame of the Christmas Club Theft, about Scotch Eggs and Who's Who and Games and Puzzles. Sometimes she chants Dewey numbers to herself, but Linda is too focused on making sure they get down the stairs in one piece to pay much attention to her.
'Mike, can you hear something?'
Mike rests against the wall. They are both panting slightly. The Boss goes limp in their arms and they prop her against the bannister. From the bottom of the stairwell, Linda can hear bumps, bangs, and shouts.
'I can't hear anything,' Mike says.
Linda blushes. She'd forgotten, but sometimes, when it's been a while since she's had a special drink (something medicinal, for her nerves) she tends to hear things. Not things. Just bumps. Shakes and scratches in the walls. That sort of thing.
'My mistake,' Linda says, and coughs, 'lets get to the staff room. The quicker we get a Gin... I mean, a cup of tea, the better I'll feel.'
Linda and Mike take The Boss's arms again, but suddenly she opens her eyes and smiles at them quite calmly.
'Are you feeling better?' Linda asks. She wants to say, 'Sir' but she bites her lip and stops herself just in time.
'Oh yes,' The Boss says.
Her smile is like cool blue water with the reflections of pine trees in it. It is melted glacier warmed by geothermal activity. It is water stuffed with unknown minerals: the kind that will make you cleverer, and live forever. Or the kind that will give you fast growing tumours. No-one knows.
'We'd better hurry up dear,' The Boss says, 'it looks like I made a mistake putting Rosalyn in the basement, doesn't it?'
Rosalyn is the first to hear it, her ears twitching under her mass of hair. All that time in the dark has made her hearing fantastic. She can hear things that are normally inaudible to the human ear. She can sniff out things, too. And the smell in the air is one of impending violence, of too much testosterone and pent up aggression. And it is getting closer.
The stomp stomp shuffle stomp becomes a swarming mass of bodies. They are coming through into the Staff Only area, into that sacred space where books are catalogued and tagged and barcoded, and where the under-appreciated frontline staff can take some respite from the screaming hordes by tapping quietly on keyboards and worshipping at the altar of Dewey. But The Borrowers have crossed that magical line. It can only mean one thing: WAR.
‘What the pig?’ says Bob, puffing out his chest.
Katerina looks around for Linda. Linda would know what to do, which rules had been broken, which bye-laws had been contravened, and she would sort these Borrowers out with a few short sentences. But Linda is still off on the mission with Mike, and as Katerina realises this, her heart sinks.
‘What’s going on?’ Garry asks. ‘Do you think they’re angry about being cooped up in here all day?’
‘No. This is something else entirely.’ Katerina whispers.
‘No Petition Will Right This Wrong!!’ comes the chant. It is repeated over and over until it fills the entire room and starts rebounding off the walls. Rosalyn squeals and runs into the lift, disappearing back down into her subterranean world. Garry is not quick enough to follow her. He turns to The Borrowers, angry now.
‘Get out of here!’ he yells. The first missile hits him square in the chest. It is a book of Monet’s paintings. It is two inches thick, and even though it is a paperback, it still manages to knock the wind out of Garry. It is a warning shot.
‘Oi!’ grunts Bob, and he is greeted with Wendy Richards’ biography smacking into his shoulder. Picking it up, Bob mutters ‘I’ll give you My Life Story!’ before hurling it back into the midst of grunting, seething Borrowers. In unison, Bob and Garry sweep everything off Bob’s desk and up-end it, taking cover behind the wooden frame. Katerina pushes John to the floor and crouches down next to him. She wonders where his fighting spirit has gone. Can’t he see there are books being damaged? John just holds his knees and rocks like Arthur Fowler did when he stole the Christmas Club money. Katerina wonders if she should invoke Google. That would get John fighting again. But twice in one day? John has never had to deal with Google twice in one day before. They could lose him forever. It would have to be a last, absolutely final resort.
More books come flying over their heads. The brick-like Whitaker’s catches the leg of the desk and slams loudly to the floor.
‘This is getting pigging serious now,’ says Bob. ‘They’re breaking out the big guns.’
Each Borrower carries a book back to the barricade. They carry Whitaker’s Almanack and The Family Health Encyclopaedia and the Oxford English Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus and Blackwell’s Medical Dictionary and Who’s Who. They carry the Encyclopaedia Britannica volume by volume, and they stack each of these hefty tomes behind the barricade, only now The Borrowers are on the other side of it, and it no longer serves the purpose of protecting the library. It has become an offensive outpost, turned against the library staff. The Borrowers will launch their main attack from there, and it is to there they will retreat to replenish ammunition and energy.
Energy should be particularly low - none of The Borrowers have eaten all day - but they all seem to be existing on a different frequency. Borrower Who Eats Scotch Eggs At The Computer is the only one who’s eaten anything, but he’s kept quiet about his secret Scotch egg stash. There’s one left, from a pack of four, and he isn’t about to share it with anyone, hive mind or not. But The Borrowers are not powered by adrenaline. It is something much more powerful than that. They are driven by the undaunted belief that this library is a service paid for entirely by them, individually and collectively, and as such, they have the right to do as they want, whenever they want, and to be treated with the utmost respect and GRATITUDE at all times. This is much stronger and much more dangerous than any kind of food (or even drug) fuelled energy could ever be.
A Great Wrong has been visited upon them, in the guise of Complaining Borrower’s demise. No Petition Will Right This Wrong. They chant this mantra as they work, stacking bigger and heavier books. It begins quietly, but as the last book is placed behind the barricade - the Guinness Book Of Records - the chanting becomes a battle cry that rings out across the whole of the library, and with it, The Borrowers charge towards the Staff Only area.
The Boss regrets to inform you that after the latest incident, all extra-librarial relationships between staff are strictly forbidden forthwith and forever. This includes, but is not exclusive to, after work drinks, lunch, swapping of mobile telephone numbers, lingering looks, eye contact and accidental brushing in the fiction bays.
It is unfortunate and regrettable that we must take this course of action. I know some of you have expressed concern amongst yourselves, and have used the feedback forms provided on the matter.*
Let me assure you, the basement is perfectly habitable and all the Essentials for Life have been provided. We are not a cruel Boss. We are fair, and sometimes we must be firm for the sake of the smooth running of the establishment. Our jobs are to shift units and increase issue figures year on year, for eternity. When we are all properly focused on this goal, we have no need for friendship, romance, or conversation.
I repeat: we are not a cruel Boss. Our errant member of staff will have all the basic comforts and retain her salary. Dewey says it is perfectly possible to live in the dark with no ill effects.
Due to the incident that took place today in the New Books Room, one which embarrassed both the public who were unlucky enough to witness it, and the Public Library Authority At Large, we see no other course of action. The matter is final.
The Basement is now a forbidden area.
*Any and all future use of feedback forms to communicate with ourselves on this matter will be treated as mutiny and dealt with appropriately (see Terrorist Threat for particulars)
Katerina hovers while John drinks the tea she’s made. Her cup is on the desk. She is letting it cool. Garry and Rosalyn have cups too. Garry sips his quietly, but Rosalyn is slurping hers loudly, like only a person who’s lived alone does. Garry beams at her. He finds the noises she makes endearing. This impromptu tea party is a singular point of normality in the timetable of the day’s events. The fact that they are all still at work, well after hours, in various states of shock and confusion is by the by. The tea is a magical elixir, making everything fine for the moment.
John uses the sleeve of Katerina’s cardigan to wipe the teardrop from the horse book. He is relieved to find no permanent damage has been done. The book will still be able to go out into stock, where it will stand spine outwards or maybe even face on, until it is checked out by an adolescent girl. Suddenly self conscious, John shrugs the cardigan off his shoulders and hands it back to Katerina.
‘Thanks. You feeling a bit better?’
John nods. His head hurts. He thinks all the blood vessels have burst. He can feel tiny gunpowder explosions behind his eyes. It’s preventing him from thinking straight. But he does feel a bit better than he did.
Bob, the only one at the tea party not actually drinking tea, paces behind Garry. He is bothered by the fact that Rosalyn is sitting on his desk, and by the presence of Garry in his chair. Bob’s territory is being violated, but he is impotent. He is not himself. He wants to tell Garry to shift, and to shove the hairy bint off so she falls on the floor, but he doesn’t say a word. He can’t even bring himself to glare at Garry. He fixes his eyes on his stapler, marooned in the river of Rosalyn’s hair. It’s like a barrel about to sail over the edge of a waterfall. A hairy, cascading-over-the-desk waterfall.
Katerina catches Bob’s eye and mouths,’Who’s she?’
‘Trouble,’ Bob mouths back, shaking his head.
The Borrowers fold origami flowers from pages ripped out of the books. They cross out the swear words and complain about the bad plots, but still they tear and fold, making a huge paper wreath that they place gently at Complaining Borrower's Feet.
Complaining Borrower's head is leaking. It leaks all over the roses, all over the carpet. The roses are white, the roses are white and red, the roses are red.
The Borrowers stare. They turn as one, stop to listen, and head towards the kitchen, marching slowly, muttering softly. As they pass the barricade, they stop, and stare again. They think.
The kitchen is a poky little room. It is just like a lift, but a bit more compact, and minus the ability to move up or down. It doesn’t have the benefit of sliding doors, either. In accordance with Fire Regulations, the door has to be a Fire Door, which means it has to be a big, heavy lumbering thing that is impossible to prop open. And even if it could be propped open, it would be Against All Regulations to do so. The room has to be vacuum sealed at all times. The occupants have to survive on whatever air is in there for the duration of their stay. The kitchen is a place that is used for the smallest amount of time possible, and only in moments of dire need. Tea is one of these dire needs. Tea is the reason that brings anyone and everyone to the almost-cupboard. They come in search of the one true Grail - a Morphy Richards Accents stainless steel jug kettle.
Standing shoulder to shoulder in front of the kettle are Garry and Katerina. They are watching the water, lit up all blue, hoping it will start to bubble soon. Tea is needed and it’s needed fast. John has lost his marbles and Garry has a lovely new lady friend in need of rehydration. Katerina is in need of something sugary, too. She can feel her blood sugar reaching an all time low. She has been running to and fro all day. Standing in the blue glow of the kettle finally allows the fact that she is exhausted to seep into her consciousness.
‘What a day,’ she says, just to say it.
‘Yep. As first days go, I’d say this was a pretty pigging spectacular one.’ Garry is grinning. He can still feel the soft kiss on his cheek. He is happier than he’s ever been.
‘I think I just want to go home,’ says Katerina. ‘Do you reckon it’s all safe now? I’ve not had a lunch break, so I could technically just go now.’
‘I don’t know. There are still lots of questions that need answering. Do you know what the music was? Or where it’s gone? Or where it came from? I’m new here so I don’t know how everything works exactly...’
‘Didn’t you have your Induction?’
‘Yes, I think that’s what it was. But all this happened after that. And I didn’t get the chance to read all the Staff Manual.’
The kettle purrs and then clicks off with a faint whistle. Katerina pours the boiling water into four cups. The tea brews, curls of steam rising up to the strip lighting. After stirring in enough milk and sugar to keep a woolly mammoth alert, they both leave the tiny room, letting the door crash firmly, heavily shut behind them.
The smile helps. If it fails, say something like, 'I can see you are very upset, Sir/Madam, perhaps you'd like to fill out one of our feedback forms? The Authority take customer feedback very seriously, you know.'
In no circumstances must completed feedback forms be inserted into the Suggestions Box. They can be disposed of as sensitive waste in the usual way, by burning or flushing.
If the situation escalates, and develops into General Borrower Unrest, Revolt, or Anarchy (particularly during half term or Saturday mornings) please refer to: Terrorist Threat and apply the instructions found therein accordingly.
Sometimes Borrower who Leaves Pictures Torn Out Of Porn Magazines Inside The Children's Books and Borrower Who Rips Out The Barcodes and Then Denies It and Borrower Who Complains about Blasphemous Books and Borrower Who Asks for The Karma Sutra Every Single Pigging Day And Never Pigging Borrows It, and Borrower Who Winks For No Reason, and Borrower who Complains about Mobile Phone Noise Pollution, and Borrower Who Leaves His Books on the Newspaper Table then Gets Angry When They Are Still on His Ticket, and Borrower Who Brings Quality Street In At Christmas and Borrower who Cries, Silently, in the Science Fiction Section, come together and become something more than Borrowers.
Sometimes, they plan things. Sometimes Petitions, sometimes letters to The Council, and sometimes, much worse things.
The Borrowers who have managed to get up in the lift from the Basement Area walk towards the queue. But they keep on walking. They walk through the library, past the shining Rubber Plants and the Poster Paint on the carpet, and into The Dead Zone.
They circle the lump on the carpet. They kneel and pat Complaining Borrower gently. They make little growling noises, groans and confused whimpers.
When it becomes clear Complaining Borrower is not going to wake up, they gather together to mutter and plan.
They have come together. They are an Army of Borrowers now. They are not planning a petition.
They are planning a War.
She was starting to feel like she'd been dangling upside down for a long time. A really long time. She was starting to wonder if everyone in the library and the outside world (it's been years since she's even remembered there was such a disordered, noisy, bookless place) had forgotten about her.
And then the blood started to throb through her brain, beating like a drum, like a whole pit of percussionists, like a bin-bag of pots and pans being thrown down the stairs. Her gums and eyeballs started to throb. Her skirt, brushing against her chin, seemed to be throbbing too, although that wasn't possible.
These migraines are enough to make the library itself tremble, The Boss thought, and then the sentences in her head scattered and made themselves into a picture that looked like a heap of broken twigs and umbrella spokes, and was frightening.
The Boss closed her thrumming eyes and let her legs go limp just as Mike opened the stationery cupboard door.
She collapses into his arms, and he catches her, but she doesn't know anything about it.
'Linda,' Mike says, 'get the First Aid Box, The Boss has...'
Linda hesitates at the door. 'I'm not allowed to do First Aid on The Boss,' she says, 'it's a rank thing. It's about line-management structure, and council hierarchy. It's in the Staff Manual.'
Mike sinks to the carpet on his knees, half in and half out of the cupboard. He pulls The Boss' skirt over her legs and doesn't look.
'She's fainted!' he says, 'she needs some First Aid.'
'What she needs,' Linda says, 'is a cup of tea and some Fresh Air.'
Mike opens his mouth to argue, but The Boss twitches in his lap. She flutters her eyes open.
'There's something nasty in the library,' she slurs, 'Games and Puzzles.'
The Boss closes her eyes again. Mike taps her face gently. He doesn't quite dare a slap. How old is The Boss anyway? She could be twenty-nine, or eighty. There's something strange about her face, like the skin has been creased up and ironed out again hundreds of times, for hundreds and hundreds of years. He doesn't quite want to touch her, but she is a woman, and she is ill, and Mike is a Gentleman.
'What's she talking about?' Linda says, 'lets get her downstairs to the Staff Room.'
'Hide the Evidence!' The Boss screeches, eyes still closed. 'Dishonour! Shame! The tax-payer!'
Mike looks at Linda, and shrugs. 'Maybe a cup of tea would help,' he says, and shakes his head, 'we've all had a hard day.'
Bob stands behind Garry. He is flanked by Borrower Who Eats Scotch Eggs At The Computer and Borrower Who Borrows Black Lace Books But Always Puts A War Book On Top. (Who is he trying to kid?) Bob seems to have shrunk. His usually puffed-out chest is not puffed-out at all. The two Borrowers are looking to him for directions, but he is not meeting their eyes. Bob is looking around the room. Bob is staring at the floor.
‘Oi,’ says Garry, ‘get them out of here. This is a Staff Only area.’
Bob nods and sweeps the two Borrowers back out to the front desk. They rejoin the queue. They scratch their heads.
‘Now let’s get you a cup of tea,’ Garry says softly. Rosalyn gazes after him as he heads off towards the kitchen.
John is a mess. He is wild-eyed, and his thinning hair is plastered to his face with sweat. He reminds Katerina of a skinny Heathcliff who’s been lost on the moors for days. He is shouting ‘Katerina’ rather than ‘Cathy’ though. But he is shouting. In the library.
When it was dark, all Katerina could hear was his weird panting, coupled with the shouts, but now the lights have kicked in, she is fully aware of the spectacle of him, loping towards her, wearing her cardigan as a sort of cape. For the first time ever, Katerina is a little afraid of John. And Bob is in the basement. Mike is in The Office. She is all alone.
‘Sh,’ she tries to say, but he drowns her out with another shout. He is calling her name. ‘John, it’s me, Katerina. I’m right here.'
‘Good. Good. Okay. Are you okay? I have this...’ he holds out her cardigan. ‘Why do I have this?’
‘Er...you were in shock, John. You had one of...er, well...you had an electric shock. It was pretty bad.’
‘Right. Right. But I’m okay now? I am okay, aren’t I?’
‘Yeah, you’re fine John. You look like you could maybe do with a sit down, though. How about we get you into the back, eh?’
Katerina takes John by the arm and guides him through to the back room. She sits him in her chair.
‘6...’ He taps the book. ‘6?’
‘Yes, 636.1. That’s an easy one, even I know that one, and not just because I did it this morning.’
‘John, what are you on about? Tell you what, I’ll make you a cup of tea, lots of sugar, get you back to normal.’ Katerina slowly backs away and heads towards the kitchen.
‘It’s all gone,’ John says, laying his head on the horse book as a single tear runs down his burnt cheek.
Garry is striding through the dark. He can hear Rosalyn keening somewhere over to his left, but something is telling him he must carry straight on. His hands outstretched, they finally come into contact with the wall.
But it isn't just the wall, and the noise isn't just Rosalyn.
Garry stops, and sniffs.
He can smell Brut. And he can hear panting and shuffling.
'Just a little bit more!' someone says. There's a groan, and the noise of something soft and large falling. A torrent of swearing, and then a laugh.
'I'm in!' Bob says, 'for the love of pig!' It worked!
Garry freezes. He can hear Bob picking himself up off the floor. Garry hurries, feeling the strange boxes and levers on the wall in front of him. He will not be robbed of his glory. Today, he thinks, is Garry Day. Garry holds his breath and pulls the levers down.
There is a crackle, a fizz, a pop, and then the electricity hums into life and the basement is flooded with light.
Garry is standing in front of the fuse-boxes. Bob is in front of the lift. There are a couple of borrowers lying on the floor as if they are asleep, scattered at his feet like fallen skittles.
Rosalyn is on her knees. She has her hands over her eyes. The lights haven't been on down here in years, perhaps decades.
'Garry!' Bob says, 'you beauty!'
Garry blinks, his hand still on the levers. He feels something. A strange feeling. It is swelling in his chest. His heart is expanding, getting bigger and bigger. It is making him spread his legs and stand up straighter. He lifts his chin, feeling like a Roman Emperor. He lets go of the levers and puts his hands on his hips.
'That'll do, Bob,' he says, with great dignity. 'I've got everything in hand now.'
Rosalyn stands up, shakes out her hair and walks shakily towards Garry. Garry doesn't notice her. He is too busy Making Eye Contact with Bob.
Bob seems to shrink and crumple. Katerina is shouting down the lift shaft.
'The lights! The lights are back on! The tills are working!' she says. She sounds delirious with happiness, but neither Bob or Garry answer.
Rosalyn leaps towards Garry. She curls her arms around his neck and kisses his cheekbone. She stands on tip-toe and lets her hair tickle his neck.
There are no words to describe Garry's heart now. He has never, ever been kissed before. He thinks about The Staff Manual. Wasn't there something in there about Relationships Between Staff? Some dire consequences?
Rosalyn smells like a grove of citrus trees and he turns and pushes her hair out of her eyes. Garry puts his hand around her waist. In the light, Rosalyn is a very beautiful woman. Rosalyn puts her head in the space between Garry's chin and his chest. She kind of burrows in, as if she doesn't want to look at Bob.
'Garry, you plumb. She's bad news! Leave it alone!' Bob says.
Garry places one arm around Rosalyn's shoulders and points at Bob with the other.
'Oi,' he says. The kiss has made his voice deeper, more manly somehow. Bob shrinks some more, and then nods.
'Lets get back upstairs,' Garry says, and presses the button on the lift, 'come on Bob. This lady,' he lifts Rosalyn and carries her into the lift, 'needs a hot drink, and something to eat.'
'Are you coming up now?' Katerina's voice bounces down the metal tube and booms around them, 'come quick! John's gone mad!'
In the darkness, he can hear the quiet sound of her breathing. She is far less annoying like this - quiet, and invisible. Mike pretends he’s in Call Of Duty 4, and Linda is a beautiful survivor he’s saved from some blast or attack. She comes from a place where technology is not freely available, so she thinks he is a genius, a wizard. No, not a wizard, he doesn’t want to go down that road. Mike tuts as he thinks of role-players, and of how the moronic general public lump anyone with one iota of IT knowledge into the same pigeon-hole. He can feel his knuckles tensing in the dark.
‘Okay, I’m ready for the next flight,’ says Linda.
‘Yes, M’am,’ drawls Mike as he gets to his feet. He is being ironic, but is not sure it will be taken that way. His experience of Linda in the past has always had him biting his fist in exasperation at her ability to take everything literally. But she doesn’t reply. Mike senses her proximity in the enclosed space. She is at his shoulder, she is following him. Mike can feel the gentle pressure of her against his hip. In the dark, he is free to imagine her out of her regulation dungarees. He thinks of all the things he will teach her; click-and-drag, the right-mouse button, and all those keyboard shortcuts. He is excited.
One step at a time, they advance upwards. He can smell something citrusy and potent. It is seeping out of Linda’s pores. He feels a little high. And then he hears the sobs.
‘Um...then why are you crying?’
‘I’m not .....(sniff)....crying.’
The air around Mike is empty again. Linda is much lower, now. She is sitting down. Mike joins her on the step, sitting close enough to feel her body flinch then resettle against him. She feels warm. Mike is aware of all the hairs on his arms standing up, prickling with static electricity. It’s been a while since Mike felt anything like this. It’s been exactly eleven months and three days to be precise. When it gets to a year, Mike tells himself, then I’ll be over her. Not a day before. But this, he thinks now, is sort of a practise run. It’s me getting used to how things can be for me again.
Linda is still sobbing. Mike wonders if he should put his arm around her. It’s usually what women want when they cry. We don’t want fixes, we just want to be listened to, and held. This mantra is carved into his hard-wiring now. His reply of ‘but it’s not logical’ always made the crying worse, so he has learned better of it. He lifts his arm and lets it hover a fraction of a centimetre above Linda’s shoulders. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, he lowers it until he hits body, prompting a series of large breathless sobs which slowly peter out to nothing.
‘There there,’ he offers, a bit woodenly.
‘I thought I’d checked the batteries...’
‘The Emergency Lighting...it’s my responsibility to check it’s working. But it’s not working. It’s dark.’
‘Not with this it isn’t,’ Mike says, turning his Maglite on full beam. He shines it into Linda’s face, illuminating her red eyes and the mascara streaks on her red cheeks. Linda squints under the glare, clearly uncomfortable, so Mike turns it off again.
‘I don’t know what else I might’ve just Let Slide. There’s so much for me to do, maybe I can’t do it all. Maybe I’m not the Superhero I think I am?’
Mike has never, not once, thought of Linda as a superhero. He is about to laugh, but thinks better of it. Instead he pats her shoulder.
‘Things just go wrong sometimes,’ he finds himself saying. ‘And no-one’s to blame, it’s just the way things are. The Emergency Lights might’ve blown when everything else did - who knows what’s going on in this place today? So don’t be so hard on yourself. Okay?’
Mike gets to his feet and he feels Linda do the same.
‘Onwards and upwards?’ he asks.
‘Onwards and upwards.’
They race up the last flight of stairs and spill out into the corridor. Linda pushes back a memory of tribal drumming as Mike bangs hard on the door of The Office. Without waiting for an answer, he barges inside.
The Boss wouldn't mind being an Ice Skater, actually. It's a secret she's never told anyone before, not since she was a child. And then, it was all she talked about. She made costumes from tin foil and cling film, tinsel and milk-bottle tops. She practised twirling on her own, in a quiet corner of the playground. She never got dizzy. She practised, and while she was practising she waited for a man with a side parting and tight trousers to throw her upside down and whirl her through the air until her teeth rattled.
Her father told her she had thick ankles, and her mother thought the flesh coloured tights and glittering mini-skirts were 'inappropriate'. In cold weather The Boss used to pour water on the patio and practice sliding and twirling as soon as it hardened. There was an accident. The Boss frowns. It wasn't her fault, although everyone blamed her.
An orphan doesn't have too many career options.
When the door opens the Boss leaps up quickly and clambers onto the top shelf of the cupboard. There isn't enough room for her here. She hooks her knees over the top of the shelf and lets the top part of her body dangle downwards. Her neat skirt ruffles gently downwards and the hem brushes her chin. Her careful curls uncoil downwards and then spring back up again. She can feel the blood rushing to her head. She can feel her pulse hammering hard in her eyeballs. It has been a very long time since she has been completely upside down.
Garry is 91% anxiety now. He would feel better if he knew the books were covered in cling-film, if there was only some kind of barrier between him and them. He tries to convince himself they have been stored in a protective covering, but when he reaches out his hand, there is only paper.
There have been so many twists and turns on his run that he imagines he’s in some kind of maze. He has no sense of where he is at all. He wishes the music would start again. He knows he would be okay if the music was there. The music made him invincible. Now, he thinks, he is going to die down there. He wonders will he ever be found, or will he just be another name in a list of missing persons? He can’t go on. He doesn’t know which way is forward, which way is back. He can’t even see his own hand in front of his face. The darkness settles on him and pushes him further into himself, into his despair.
Garry thinks about the baked potato he was going to eat by the side of the river, on the bench he was going to cover with cling-film. He thinks about his heart. Today, his heart has been all sizes. He thinks how it started out this morning as a withered thing, something that was beyond all hope. And then it swelled when the music came, and nearly burst out of his chest. Garry imagines all the white blood cells doing a repair job inside him, inside the chambers of his heart. He knows they were there. He knows his heart is a stronger heart than the one that entered the library earlier that day. Thinking these thoughts brings his anxiety down to 73%.
Garry decides that he will not die today. He decides he will face his fears and try to find his way out of the book-maze. He feels his heart bumping quickly in his chest. By just thinking about the music, Garry has harnessed its power and made himself brave again. All that matters to him now is finding his way back to the monitors and getting the power back on. He has never been part of a team before, but he likes it a lot. He likes the feeling of working for the greater good. He will fix the power for the greater good of all his new workmates. Even though he had no intention of changing jobs when he awoke that morning. He only went to the library to do research on his ailing heart. But now Garry feels that working in this library is something he was born to do. He doesn’t even mind that he has to be called Garry from now on. He didn’t like his old name much anyway. Reaching his hands out to touch both walls of books, he shakes his head like a lion and strides back in the direction he came. He is 51% pure adrenaline.
'You stupid bint!' says Bob, struggling with the doors of the lift. He has them open now, and is holding them apart. There are large sweat patches on his shirt in the shape of continents. Katerina fumbles with the string.
'Go and tie it to the edge of the counter. Bring the end over here. Tie it to...' Bob looks around, 'tie it to the edge of that shelf, will you?' he shakes his head. His muscles are trembling. Bob looks like the Incredible Hunk just before he bursts out of his clothes, except not green, but puce.
Katerina knows better than to ask questions. She runs back out into the library and ties the edge of the string to the counter. She nearly slips in the paint and she can hear the sound of something being dragged over the carpet towards the back of the library, but before she can wonder what it is, she hurries to unroll the string behind her. Before she is back near the lift, before she has tied it to the edge of the metal shelving unit, she can hear shuffling.
'The borrowers are coming!' Bob says jubilantly. And he is right.
The borrowers are following the string, holding into it with their hands and shuffling blindly where it leads. Katerina ties the knot quickly.
'Line them up, sugar-breeches,' Bob says, 'think, The Enormous Turnip.'
Katerina pauses. It's getting late, and the sun is going in. The heating in the library isn't working. She's feeling chilly and she wonders about her cardigan, forgets to remember John, and watches the borrowers come edging forwards, wobbling slightly but finally taking their place behind Bob.
'Get a couple on these doors,' Bob grunts, 'and tell the one behind me to hold onto my feet. Lower me down. Human rope. Pigging fantastic!'
This library's Dead Zone is far away from the issues desk and the front door. The books are always very tidy because no-one looks at them. The Borrower Who Takes Books Out and Puts Them Back In the Wrong Place never ventures into the puzzles and games section. Masturbating Borrower used to come here a lot, but Linda had him banned from the library and he hangs out in the Samaritans' Office now.
Puzzles and games? John lets Complaining Borrower's Legs flop to the floor and stops to think. It is hard. He is tired. Complaining Borrower isn't what you'd call a light load, and John is well aware his Manual Handling Training Certificate is out of date. On top of that, he is absolutely starving.
John likes to frown when he thinks, but the skin on the side of his face is hot and tight. Thinking takes a long time. There is something about puzzles and games, about the books in the Dead-Zone, the 793s in particular, that he needs to remember. He isn't sure what. His files have been zapped. All the pages are in the wrong order. All his knows is that The Complaining Borrower belongs here, in this quiet, little-visited part of the library.
John bends and props him up against the shelves. The soft part of his face is troubling to look at, so he takes a book down and props it open over the area.
It's fine. Borrowers sleep like this in the library all the time, their faces hidden under books like masks. John takes one last look at him, his brown coat with the pockets stuffed with carrier bags, 101 Games For One resting over his face. John feels better. He turns away to find Katerina. For some reason, he is wearing her cardigan and he can't remember why.
Katerina is on a string-finding mission. She knows they keep a big ball of string behind the counter. She is not going to use the string instead of rope - it would never take Bob’s weight - but they are going to need string in the very near future. It is Bob’s responsibility to work out how to get down the lift-shaft without actual rope. Katerina is only responsible for procuring the string. She made that very clear.
She walks past the line of borrowers and starts rummaging behind the counter. None of the borrowers speak, but Katerina becomes aware of their eyes following her every move. In the growing darkness, and without the spell of the music, the borrowers have formed themselves into an orderly queue. They seem confused, like they’ve all just opened the fridge door and instantly forgotten what they were looking for. Katerina rummages a bit more quietly. She makes her movements slow, hoping to free herself from their gaze.
The string is behind the stamp tray, which has a big empty space about the size of one of the date stamps. She thinks about Linda and her ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ speech and winces. Holding the string to her chest, she backs away from the counter, stepping in a big pool of red poster paint on her way back to Bob and the lift-shaft. She glances one last time at the borrowers, still swaying in their line, hoping they haven’t seen where she’s gone.
Rosalyn doesn’t know why the stranger wants to damage her things. She stays low on the floor. It is her strongest attack position. Her back legs are very very strong. She has had a lot of time to practise her jumping.
There is something Not Right about this stranger, though. His presence makes Rosalyn do those strange whimpers that she has no control of, and her hair feels like it is standing up on end, even though there is too much of it and it is too heavy to do that. She sniffs the air for clues. She is confused. She can’t smell him. He has no scent. Except....there is something she can smell. It is almost shiny. No, not shiny. It just makes things shiny. He has been at her polish!!
Rosalyn begins to shake, sitting back on her haunches. It is completely dark now he has broken her observation monitors, but she is used to it. Her eyes can see the outline of the stranger. He is saying things. Rosalyn only wants to make the music, she doesn’t want to say words. She hisses. She wants him to go away. The shape of him moves backwards and she watches him. He is moving too slow for her. She pushes all her strength down into her legs and waits for it to be ready. She is not going to let him damage any more things. She is a coiled spring. As she propels herself through the air, all she hears is a strange scream. And then Rosalyn hits the wall. The stranger is not where he was. Rosalyn can feel her teeth wiggling in her mouth. It hurts. In the distance, she hears the thump of volumes hitting the dusty floor. The stranger has found his way into the maze of books.
She feels like she is practically running the library most of the time. No one else seems to care about Fire Alarm tests or Inductions or Restricted Items. She is certain most of the staff have only skimmed through the Staff Manual. With the exception of John, that is. She knows John takes these things seriously. But a fat lot of good he is now!
Mike pulls a Maglite out of his pocket. It is as bright as a full moon on the dark stairs. He leads the way upwards and Linda follows closely behind. He doesn’t smell like Bob smells - stale sweat drizzled in Brut. Mike's scent is one of trees and moss. It is a scent Linda actually finds quite pleasing. She sticks close to him as he guides them up to The Office, still a little disturbed by the lack of Emergency Lighting.
After four flights of stairs, Linda starts to feel dizzy. She realises she hasn’t eaten since her Morning Break. She sits down. Mike, sensing the emptiness behind him, doubles back and shines the torch in her face.
‘I need to have a Little Rest,’ she sighs. She rummages in her dungarees for her bottle but still can’t find it. Mike is still shining the torch into her face. He is thinking that she looks too red, but then decides maybe it is just the light. Linda shields her eyes with her hand and Mike lowers the beam. Their feet are lit up now. They are inside a circle, like they have been caught in the spotlight.
Linda thinks about tap dancing. She looks at her shoes. They are not tap shoes. And the stairwell is the last place that dancing of any kind should take place. She wonders where the music has gone. She thinks that if the music was still there, she might just flout all the Health And Safety Regulations concerning dancing on the stairs. She thinks she might enjoy that a great deal. But there is no music, only the shallow breathing of her own tired lungs, and the shuffling of Mike and his moon-light torch.
‘Okay. I’m rested. Shall we Make Tracks?’
‘Yep, I reckon. Better to get it all sorted before it’s dark outside.’ Mike is concerned about them all being stuck in the library. He has plans, and they don’t include spending any more time than is necessary with these inept loons.
‘Onwards and Upwards then!’ says Linda, getting to her feet. She inhales a deep nose-full of dark forests. It seems to energise her.
‘Onwards and upwards.’
For John, all isn't well with the world. They've left him alone. He can hear Katerina laughing somewhere very far away. He thinks of his field and her green dress. There is a meadow, speckled with blue and white flowers. It smells beautiful. It is exactly the right kind of meadow. It looks, he decides, like a fabric-softener advert.
And then there she is, standing under a tree waiting for him. She is swirling her skirts about and laughing, but she is not laughing at him!
John realises very slowly that Katerina is laughing because he has been away somewhere else for a long time. Somewhere where his face hurts, and his back hurts, and his neck hurts, and humiliation rubs him all over like an old towel washed without fabric softener.
Fabric softener. That smell isn't the meadow, it is Katerina's hair, which is waving softly around her face. She is laughing because he's back from that place, and she is glad.
'Bob,' she says, with the curl of a smile in her voice, 'Linda would have you sacked for making a remark like that!' she laughs again, and it it a little tinkling that sounds just like the library bell.
There is another noise. Like someone patting a horse. Horsebook. No. It is the sound of hand against skirt-covered buttock.
John opens his eyes. He opens one of his eyes. The other is sealed shut. It hurts. John is sitting on the floor of the computer room. Katerina's cardigan is draped over his knees. It smells like fabric softener and her hair. He clutches it, and listens. Her voice is coming from very far away. From near the lift in fact.
This is as bad as G-----. Not worse, but just as bad.
John gets up painfully, and limps out of the computer room and into the library. Through his one good eye, he can see the path through the bays, around the counter, past the Enquiry desk and into the back room. He imagines the rest. The seventeen steps to Katerina's desk. And a sharp left, to the lift. That's where the sound is coming from.
Through his bad eye, he doesn't see Complaining Borrower approach.
'I've been waiting here for twenty minutes!' the voice startles John, and he turns, almost falling.
'You do realise, don't you, that it's my council tax that pays your wages?' Complaining Borrower says.
'Yes,' John says, truthfully. He is well aware of this. Someone points it out to him every day. He used to keep a tally, but he ran out of paper.
'You're a public servant, aren't you?' Complaining Borrower snaps.
'Yes,' John slurs.
'Serve, then! Come on!'
Complaining Borrower takes John's arm and pulls him back towards the issues desk.
'I've a good mind to complain,' he says, and pushes a pile of books at John. 'Book barricades! Those are my books! Who paid for them? Me, that's who. What's wrong with your face? Does your supervisor know this whole establishment is staffed by a gaggle of loons and misfits?'
John didn't know 'misfit' was one of his trigger words until Complaining Borrower hurled it at him. He can still hear Katerina giggling and this is now worse than G------. He reaches out his hand and lets his fingers curl around the first thing they touch.
'Misfit!' John says, hitting Complaining Borrower in the face with the metal date-stamp. 'Misfit.' (again) 'is' (again) 'right' (you get the idea) 'Next. To. Miss. World. In. The. 19. 94. Dewey. Decimal. Subject. In.dex!'
John raises his hand to keep hitting, but the Complaining Borrower isn't there anymore. Where he stood is now just another space in the library. Has he disappeared? John looks down and there he is again. He chuckles, and drops the date-stamp.
He'd better move the body before Linda notices the mess on the carpet.
And what a window it is. A sky-light that takes up the whole ceiling, slanted against the roof. A ceiling wall papered with blue and clouds, and at night, the black and the stars and the orange glow of city light pollution.
Often, The Boss will lie on her back on the desk and look at the day turn into night and back again. She will chant the Dewey Decimal System. She will conjure classifications eleven decimals long. They work like spells.
Today, The Boss has been feeling twitchy. It started in the morning with a new recruit and a bouncing ball. She'd taken a trip downstairs to see Rosalyn, and make sure she was all right for food and water. Rosalyn had seemed odd. The Boss had wondered about offering her an extra day's leave, or perhaps sending her on the Pre-Retirement Course, but then Linda had nearly caught her on the stairs, and she'd forgotten about it.
She'd slept, most of the day. She'd rested her feet inside the wastepaper basket and held a hole punch against her heart while she dozed. Music. There was the most beautiful music.
And now? Now the electric lights aren't working and there is a noise on the stairs. The Boss sniffs the air. She tries to sense what is coming. She does not want to do another induction. She doesn't want to give advice about Google. She is not very interested in new search terms or keywords. She used to think about Service Performance and User Surveys and Event Evaluation Monitoring. There are forms for all these things. She pats her desk and looks for the forms. The grids and tick-boxes are comforting. Nothing. There's nothing there.
It is as if the lights have gone out in her too.
The Boss opens the stationary cupboard and gets inside. It smells of Heavily Supervised Items in here. Printer paper. Toner cartridges. Elastic bands. She closes the door behind her, and waits.
'John's not right.' Katerina says, 'look at him.'
Linda looks. John is still on the floor. His muscles are twitching. He can't seem to decide if he wants to keep his eyes open or closed.
'Is it that the electric shock he had, do you think?'
Bob finally rights himself and stands up. He stretches, as if he didn't fall on the floor, but was doing some special back exercise on the carpet.
'Nah,' he says. He raises a hand to clap John on the shoulder, and thinks better of it. He puts his hands in his pockets. 'He's just upset, aren't you John?'
John doesn't answer.
'I think Garry's gone downstairs,' Linda says. 'He isn't in the library. Not unless he's behind a rubber plant.'
'He won't have gone downstairs, will he? No.' Katerina says. She bites her lip and looks at Linda, 'you were the one who volunteered to do his induction.'
'I didn't volunteer,' Linda said, 'I was asked,' she raises an eyebrow and gestures at the ceiling.
'So you should have covered Forbidden and Restricted Areas!' Katerina shouts.
Bob is watching. Bob is hoping the girls are going to get into a cat-fight. He winks at Mike, and John moans slightly.
'Listen,' Mike says, 'he might not be down... there. You never know. He could have gone upstairs. We should split up. Bob's the man for figuring out how to get into the basement without a lift, aren't you Bob?'
Bob feels himself being led, being 'handled', but is too excited about the prospect of swinging down a lift-shaft on a rope made from Katerina's stockings to complain about it. He touches the brim of an imaginary hat. 'I'm onto it,' he says.
'And Linda, you can lead a second party upstairs. Maybe we'll find him there. He's new. He might have wanted to talk to The Boss.' Mike whispers the last two words.
The librarians form themselves into teams. Katerina takes off her cardigan and places it over John's knees. She pushes him backwards slightly so he is leaning against the wall. Then she joins Bob and goes through the main library and the back room where she works (that horse book seems like months ago, rather than just this morning) to examine the lift.
Linda and Mike walk slowly, with trepidation, caution and reluctance, towards the stairs that lead up to the next floor. Mike has realised that while there is no power, there is no revolving door out either. He isn't sure if Linda knows this. He decides not to tell her.
'Let's go and see if he's there,' Mike says. They leave John sitting on the floor. In the main library, someone is ringing a bell, but they ignore it.
I am going to kill one of the characters.
Please vote for a character to be killed in Chapter 40. If you like, you can write the chapter. Or you can just suggest a name in the comments.
Rosalyn steps forward. Garry can see by the light of the observation monitors that she is holding a pair of red leather gloves. She is ignoring him. She seems to be searching the ground for something. She is making strange noises under her breath. They are squeaking, foxy, animal noises. He thinks she is saying 'lemon' but that would be silly.
'Are you all right?' Garry asks. 'Bit dark down here, isn't it?'
Garry looks towards the observation monitors. There are lots of electrical panels and little flashing LED lights over there. He is thinking logically. He is problem solving. In his interview for the library job he claimed that logical thinking and problem solving were the main assets he could bring to the Library. Now, he thinks, is the time to prove it. There is a puzzle here, and he is the man to sort it out. But first he needs to turn on the lights. Using logic, he thinks the best place to look for the light switch is near the observation monitors.
The observation monitors are flickering. He can see the main library area in one of them. He can see Complaining Borrower ringing the bell at the counter. He slaps it with the palm of his hand, over and over. There is no sound, but Garry can see how hard he is pressing the bell. Nobody comes. Lots of books have spilled from the shelves and are scattered onto the floor.
In another of the observation monitors Garry can see into the computer room. He can see Bob pick himself up from the floor. He can see Mike stand up. He can see John crouching in a corner. He can see Linda and Katerina. None of them seem to hear the bell. Perhaps, Garry thinks, the other librarians think it is part of the music - perhaps they haven't noticed that the music is over.
Rosalyn crouches on the floor and starts to sweep her hands across the concrete. She looks like a woman who has lost a contact lens. Her noises are howly, but quiet. The sound is quite like a baby who has been ignored for a very long time, and has almost no energy left for attracting attention. Where is that light switch?
'I'll be over in a tick,' Garry says, and then the observation monitors explode. There is a crackling noise, and in the dark Garry hears glass and plastic hit the floor. He can feel shards bouncing off his jumper. Something scratches the side of his face, but he isn't hurt.
Garry wonders where his antibacterial hand gel is. Garry clutches the Staff Manual to his chest.
'Hello?' he says, 'seems like there's been a power cut. Is there a fuse box down here? Or a button. For an emergency generator. Type of thing. You know. Hello?'
There is no answer. No noise but the snuffling sound of breath through clogged up nostrils, and dry hands sweeping a rough floor. Garry realises that the lift back up to the library won't work if there is no power. The darkness expands around him.
Katerina glances at John. John is clawing at the side of his face, and whimpering. She feels a stab of pity. She never knew John was so strong, so brave. She doesn't know exactly what sent him doo-lally this time, but she knows a man who is willing to fight for something he believes in is a rare thing.
Mike sits up, bumps his head on the underside of the desk and removes the last key from between his teeth.
'It's a power cut,' he says, 'an overload. I can fix it. Don't worry.'
'Are you all right?' Linda asks, ' I think I'm going to need to get the First Aid Box. Shut that door, Katerina. We don't want Complaining Borrower to see this. He'd have a field day.'
Katerina shuts the door.
'Wait,' she says, her hand still on the handle, 'listen. The music has stopped.'
Linda looks at her. Out of habit, she reaches for her special green bottle, but it isn't there.
'Where's Garry?' she says, trembling.
John stops screaming and swears profusely. John never swears. Holding his hand to the side of his face he looks around and sees Mike dragging himself under a desk. John growls and lunging forward, grabs Mike's ankle and pulls him out. Snatching up a keyboard, he brings it down across Mike's head, keys flying everywhere from the shattered board.
Mike slumps to the ground. John, the side of his face smouldering, rolls Mike onto his back and snatches up a handful of the loose keys.
Prising Mike's mouth open, John begins ramming the keys between his teeth.
The door to the computer room opens, and Bob barrels in, followed by Katerina and Linda. They look at John, fist raised as he straddles Mike, who coughs out a key.
"What the pigging hell's going on? Have you lost your pigging mind?" Bob barks.
John's eyes are blank. He doesn't recognise them, not even Katerina.
"Do something!" Katerina shakes Bob's arm, holding onto him for a little longer than absolutely necessary.
"Don't worry, sweetcheeks, I'll look after him", Bob flexes his knees and steps towards John.
Bob moves closer to John, staying just out of reach, and then lunges, trying to rugby tackle him head on. John dips his shoulder imperceptibly as Bob tackles him and then lifts his body up and back and Bob flies through the air, completely upended, and crashes into the wall and slumps into a heap.
John turns back to Mike and raises his hand once more.
John brings his hand down, past the broken wires from the keyboardless computer and something happens. A bolt of electricity leaps from the exposed wires to John's hand, causing him to convulse and shriek before flinging him to the floor. The lights in the room grow brighter for a second and then go off, along with everything else, all the computer screens going blank.
The music stops.
Mike crawls under the desk, spitting out keys, and rests his hand on the coiled wires beneath the desk.
"Thank you", he whispers
He's not worried about Restricted Areas. He's not worried about Unemployment. For Garry, this is a chance to be a hero.
The lift stops and the doors slide open. It's dark out there, very dark. As his eyes adjust to the gloom he can see something. It isn't the hidden orchestra he expected. It's a woman. A woman who can't possibly be as old as she looks, with long, long hair that is swirling around her like a cloud.
He can't see how she is making the music, but her eyes fix on him, he can see them shining like two bike lamps. It isn't possible that they are glowing with a light of their own, Garry thinks, and then he realises he is staring, coughs, and steps out of the lift.
Something falls from the woman's hands and rolls away over the floor. The music stops as suddenly as it started. It feels like Garry has been leaning against a wall and it has suddenly collapsed. A wall of sound. And now it has been taken away he wobbles, and feels small and naked in the silence.
Garry walks towards towards the woman.
'Hello,' he says, 'do you work here?'
This chapter is the first part of a two parter submitted by regular Sh contributor Duncan Cheshire. Sh reminds borrowers not to play like this at home.
The air of the computer room vibrates with the crashing drums of the music emanating from below, and with John's screaming. His hands clamped around Mike's throat, John squeezes and squeezes, his palms pressing against the sinews and muscles protecting the ridged windpipe. He screams all the while, screaming about the rise of computers, about the slide into obsolescence of the library system, about borrowers being able to search the catalogue online without asking him, about this insufferable tit of a man, with his ctrl-alt-del t-shirt who burned a book before his very eyes! A Shakespeare at that!
John hasn't read any Shakespeare since his school days, but any author with their own Dewey Decimal number must be someone special.
Redoubling his efforts, John puts all of his strength into righting one of the many wrongs that had been committed against the library.
Mike's vision begins to blur, or vibrate, he couldn't tell anymore. He knows John is unable to control himself around technology, or any talk about the internet replacing libraries, or any damage being done to a book. Mike knows John grits his teeth if someone folds a page or cracks the spine of a book, let alone burns one. But Mike did it anyway! He'd shown them. He'd shown the librarians that there was no way to avoid what was coming. The future is here, demanding your attention like a boorish employer: you cannot hide from it.
Mike's head throbs slowly, every vein and artery trying to work and force blood back to his heart past the constricting hands at his throat. He flexes his neck but doesn't know how much longer he can hold out. He tries to claw at John's face, or pull his hands from his throat, but John is too strong.
Something flickers to his left. Shakespeare's Sonnets, burning quietly.
Mike stops trying to poke John in the eye and reaches over with his right hand, picking up the burning book. The fire scorches his skin, but he doesn't care. He slaps the flaming cover into the side of John's face and holds it there. John bucks and shies, throwing himself backwards to get away from the fire.
Mike coughs, rolls onto his front and begins crawling towards the door.
The music changes. Mike registers the change but it doesn't bother him. John seems to flinch, but he doesn't move his eyes away from the screen and its single word. Its blasphemy.
Mike stands on a chair. It is a typist’s chair and at first he has problems keeping his balance. The seat wobbles and the whole thing doesn’t as much spin, as turn gently 90 degrees in one direction, and then the other. His arms flail through the air. If someone was looking through the window at him they might think he was doing SOS semaphore but had forgotten his flags.
Mike stands up as tall as he can. He wants his throat to be out of John's reach. John is muttering to himself. Poor John – his mind is so stuffed full of catalogues and subject classifications and interesting facts that he can’t manage an uninterrupted thought of his own. These poor library people – ask them to actually think about something, and they’d go and look at a book on meditation or performance evaluation.
For a minute Mike thinks of the librarians as his children. He thinks about getting down and touching John's shoulders and forgetting the whole idea. But he knows he can’t. He’s got to say this, even if it hurts him. Even if (Mike is certain this is a possibility) he kills him for it. He wonders if anyone has been murdered by books. He thinks of crushing, clubbing, and a million paper cuts. John would know, he thinks. John is probably going to be the one to do it.
‘This is an age of information,’ he begins, and John looks at him. Actually, John glares at him. ‘Age of information’ is a phrase that often occurs close by other words. Words that John doesn’t like.
John is pointing at his own throat with a finger. He draws the finger slowly from right to left.
‘Primarily we get this information through printed material,’ Mike adds. He is proud of this. He knows many librarians don’t even like the word ‘books’. They prefer ‘units’ or ‘information resources’ or ‘the service we deliver’. And the lie doesn’t matter either. The Point is not in Britannica or Google or even in the plundered Western paperbacks that are toppling from the barricade.
John nods slowly.
‘But maximum information means minimum meaning,’ Mike says. ‘This product,’ he flaps his arms weakly, not wanting to set the chair spinning again, ‘is smothering all of us. There are eleven miles of shelves in this library. How many libraries in the world? Are we going to fill the whole world up with books?’
John stares blankly. The facts rattling in his mind seem to be draining away with his anger. His faces is a confused little postage stamp staring up at Mike. Mike knows he is not getting his message across. He thought his inarticulacy would startle a literature lover into mutiny. It isn’t the music that has made John and the rest of them mad, it is the words. Words are useless here. If he printed out what he wanted to say, bound it between hard covers and had it catalogued, he would still not be able to understand what Mike had to say. John might as well be handling tins of beans. Anything with a bar-code on it.
What Mike needs is gestures, big curly gestures that this print-sick man will be able to fathom.
Mike pulls a book from his pocket. It is a battered paperback version of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. He holds it in front of him. He hides the spine label with his thumb, so as not to distract John. He passes it from one hand to the other. John follows it with his eyes like the book is the ball in a tennis match. Mike tears a page from it, crumples it, and throws it onto the floor. Before John can come closer Mike finds his cigarette lighter, presses his thumb to the wheel, and sets the cover alight. He holds it over his head until the flames burn his fingers. Then he drops it into the floor in front of him.
'It's all on-line now, John,' he says gently, 'fully searchable. For free.'
'It's all on-line now, John,' he says gently, 'fully searchable. For free.'
Mike feels exhilarated. He laughs and jumps down from the chair. He wants to set fire to the stacks, and breathe in air that has been cleaned from the stink of ink and yellowing paper.
John lunges at Mike. Mike feels himself falling backwards, feels his shoulders hit the chair and push it away. He feels hands around his throat. Now he's on the floor all he can see is John's brown jumper, and, if he turns his head, the snakey coil of wires under the computer tables.
John lunges at Mike. Mike feels himself falling backwards, feels his shoulders hit the chair and push it away. He feels hands around his throat. Now he's on the floor all he can see is John's brown jumper, and, if he turns his head, the snakey coil of wires under the computer tables.
The book is smouldering by his elbow and John is screaming and squeezing as hard as he can.
The book is smouldering by his elbow and John is screaming and squeezing as hard as he can.