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.
Bob, she realises, is claiming all this work as his own. Bob is totally ignoring her. Bob thinks he is standing in his own back garden, pointing out the special features of his new garden shed to his next-door neighbour. Bob is showing someone the insides of his car. The 'Kit-Kat' period was short and sweet and now, she realises, it is over.
What went wrong?
Katerina is wondering why Bob thinks they need a barricade. She is wondering why they would want to stop people from coming into the library. She is wondering if Bob is expecting an Attack of some kind. She is thinking about all this while Linda is trying to get Bob's attention. Bob is ignoring her too. Linda is complaining about Manning the Defences. She is quoting the Equality and Diversity Policy. She is telling Bob that it really should be 'Personning The Defences.'
Then the music changes. It moves from strings to percussion. It sounds like a bin-bag full of saucepans being thrown down a flight of concrete steps. It is hard to talk on top of the music. Bob turns quickly. She can read his lips.
'Pigging Hell!' he is saying, 'Get under the pigging counter!'
Complaining Borrower grabs Katerina's arm. Bob grabs Linda's arm. They run across the library and crouch under the counter. It smells of printer toner and newspaper under there. The carpet is much cleaner there than anywhere else in the library.
The music is booming. Parts of it are like the sound that the tins tied to the back of a 'Just Married' car make as they bump and spark along the tarmac when the car drives away. Off to a hotel for a Honeymoon.
Honeymoon. Katerina frowns. Why doesn't anyone want to go on a Honeymoon with her? Why do Men never text her back? Why are there never any second dates? Why does it stop with a slap on the bum in the middle of barricade building? Emergencies are supposed to bring people closer together. This could have been her chance. The music is reminding Katerina of all her rejections, all her lost opportunities and disappointments. These men do nothing but stamp all over her dreams.
'Where's John?' Katerina asks. She looks at Linda, but Linda is looking in the pockets of her dungarees for her green bottle.
'Bob?' Bob is making gun shapes with his fingers and covering himself as he peeps over the counter.
The music is so loud now that the books start to fall off the shelves. The barricade is holding, for now.
2: Face Fascists
4: Restricted Items
5: Night Eyes
7: 500 Squat Thrusts A Day
8: Green Hair Ribbon
9: 'Existential Crisis'
10: Dirty Shit
11: The Enquiry
12: 78 Rubber Plant Leaves
13: No 'Gun' At All
14: Bob's Peak Peaks
15: This Is More Than Stab-proof Underwear And Glory
16: Now We Have The Internet Librarians Are Going Extinct
17: A Hankering For Pernod
18: The Boy With A Glockenspiel Spine
19: A Message From The Boss
20: The Music Of Lemons
21: Lunch Break
22: Staff Manual
23: The Squid And The Quail
24: Risk Assessment (Google)
25: The Dewey Chakra
26: The Power Of The Pink Wall
27: Working Towards The Same Goal
28: I Used To Work In An Office But I'm All Right Now
29: Forbidden Areas
30: Basement Rapunzel Vibrates Lemon. Angry Penguin Watches On Disgruntled Skateboard. Red Gloves Receive Tune Of Rage
31: Angry Library Music
33: A Number all of His Own
34: Meanwhile, Down in the Basement
36: A Charred Man, But a Man all The Same
37: When the Music's Over, Turn Out The Lights
38: A Rescue Rope Made Of Nylon Stockings
39: A Head In The Clouds
40: Adjacent To Miss World
41: Onwards And Upwards
42: Rosalyn Versus The Stranger
43: Big Ball Of String
44: Dead Zone
45: Not Green But Puce: A Story of The Incredible Hulk and the Zombie Borrowers
46: Today Is Not A Good Day To Die
47: An Orphaned Ice Skater
48: A Genius, A Superhero, And A Dream Of Keyboard Shortcuts
49: That'll Pigging Do Bob
50: It's Me, Katerina
51: A Cup Of Tea Solves Everything
52: Something Nasty In The Library
53: An Army Of Borrowers
54: Dealing With Borrowers
55: The One True Grail
56: Paper Roses, Only Imitation, Just Like Your Imitation Love, For Me
57: A Barrel Sailing Over A Waterfall
58: Relationships Between Staff
59: Hive Mind Hatches A Plan
60: Three Scotch Eggs, Inalienable Rights and A Great Wrong
61: Breaking Out The Big Guns
62: A Smile To Give You Tumours
63: This Isn't War, It's Love
64: The Thin Grey Line
65: Search And Rescue
66: The Lingering Smell Of Sellotape
30: Basement Rapunzel Vibrates Lemon. Angry Penguin Watches on Disgrunted Skateboard. Red Gloves Receive Tune of Rage.
Rosalyn is not tired of making the music. Her back is aching from where she is pressing it against the shelves. Her teeth feel like they are about to judder out of her jaw - the vibrations are strong down here. Her toes are numb, the pictures on the observation monitors are flickering, and things are working their way to the edge of the shelves. But she won't stop. She can't stop.
The first thing to fall is a stuffed penguin riding a skateboard. That's something Rosalyn found in the Children's Library. It bounces off the dirty concrete floor and comes to rest between her feet. Rosalyn can't kick it away, but the floor itself is moving and shifts it for her.
Rosalyn wonders why no-one comes down here for their Lost property. She wonders why no-one loves these objects enough to retrieve them. She wonders why no-one comes to see her. Her hair is loose and is flies around her, crackling with static electricity that sparkles blue and green in the dark.
Rosalyn has very few memories: her years in the dark seem to have obscured them from her. But she remembers one visit, many years ago. A young man, searching for somewhere quiet to lift weights in his lunch hour. Just passed his Working At Depths certificate. They don't let the staff take it anymore. When she heard his footsteps on the stairs, she'd shaken her hair loose then too. She'd pulled the hem of her dress straight. She wondered if there was enough tea in her thermos for two. She coughed, just to test if her voice still worked.
And he'd looked at her, scratched his crotch, and laughed.
'Look at your hair!' he'd said, 'you could stuff a pigging mattress!'
Rosalyn doesn't remember what happened next. It could be that he had wandered around her shelves and cabinets, tutting at dust and ignoring her. It could be that he'd found the dark and the dust and the damp unsuitable to his body building. Perhaps he had pulled her fingers from his shirt material and vanished into the lift before she could show him the treasure down here. It could be that he'd forgotten all about her by now. It was years ago. Long enough for her to stop imagining what lying down on a mattress filled with her own hair might feel like.
She moves her hands slightly, adjusting her grip on the lemon and the red leather gloves. She hisses - she can't help it - and changes the tune. She wants to make the whole building as angry as she is.
- No staff member is permitted ingress to The Office without prior summons. When in the upper regions of the library, do not approach the office door. Do not tap on the glass. Do not 'loiter' in the vicinity of the office. Cleaning the office corridor with vacuum cleaners is only permitted between the hours of 2am and 5am, and is therefore the designated responsibility of the Night Staff.
- It is also forbidden to talk about The Office in the public library areas. When staff members need to communicate to each other about The Office in areas where 'borrowers' may be present (see Dealing with Borrowers) they may do this only by a) raised eyebrows and a tilt of the head upwards, or b) the word 'upstairs' followed by a wink with the left eye only.
- With the exception of staff who hold the Working At Depths certificate, it is strictly against Health and Safety Policy to press the 'down' button on the lift and access the Basement Storage Area. Staff members wishing to check Lost Property (see Lost Property for more) or consult the Library Archives may fill out proforma 6743b part ii in triplicate and forward it through the usual channels.
- If the 'down' button on the lift is pressed in error, please break the emergency glass panel in the lift, pull the lever and await further instructions. The Library Service cannot be held responsible for any personal injury (psychological or otherwise) that may result from the pulling of this lever. See below for the penalties of not pulling the lever when its use is warranted.
- Staff Members with current Working At Depths Certificates: Rosalyn, Bob.
- Next working at Depths Training Day: 15 August 2069
The Boss would like to take this opportunity to remind her staff that [there is a smudge on the paper here: the star-shaped splash looks like a tear-stain and has obscured the word underneath] County Council takes Health and Safety at Work very seriously. Any breach of these rules must be reported at once to the Health and Safety Warden, who will then arrange for immediate Disciplinary Interview, and, where applicable, total and immediate dis-employment.
The words of the Manual mock Garry as he slips between the bookshelves and heads for the lift. He trembles, but he knows now is the time for bravery.
It it not the kind of relaxed that makes him want to fall asleep, it is the kind of relaxed that is making his thoughts feel calm and sharp and precise, his brain ticking perfectly inside his perfectly still body. It is almost too much effort to turn the pages of the heavy Staff Manual. He moves his thumb along the pages and reads the chapters at random.
Garry never planned on being a librarian. He started his career in the administration department of a paper napkin factory. It was his job to take the completed order slips from someone else's out-tray and file them in a row of brown filing cabinets. He did this for seven years. He became very good at filing, and better at judging how many drawers he could open in any filing cabinet, and how far out they could be pulled, without the whole thing toppling over in front of him. He classed this, at the time, as one of his finest achievements. Now he knows he's worth so much more.
He tries to imagine his former colleagues. His lunch break is nearly over, and he imagines them slotting back into their chairs behind their desks and putting their hands on their keyboards. He imagines them waiting for the bell to ring which means lunch is over and it is time to start work again. He can still hear the sound of keyboards and sighs and the whisper of paper napkins being folded and packed into cellophane packets.
If Garry wasn't feeling so relaxed right now, he would try and leave the library and liberate them. To go back to the office and smash the bell and the clocking in machine. To snip the cables of all the computers and lead them back here to this huge thrumming building full of books.
Despite the distant sounds of Bob's 'pep talks' and the smell of gin and sweat in the air, Garry has no urge to join in with the others. He wonders if they have forgotten about him. He knows he is forgettable. He wonders if they are beginning to forget, under Bob's leadership, the real reason they are here. No-one is commenting on the music any more. It is as if they've got used to it and it doesn't matter now.
For example, none of them have commented on a fact that he is now sure of. Although the music can be heard in all the areas of the library with equal volume, it is definitely coming up from beneath his feet.
The new Garry, the brave, improved, full of health and only 2% anxiety Garry, stands up and holds the Staff Manual against his chest. He is going to investigate. Garry has freed himself from the paper-napkin factory. Garry no longer worries about his heart. Garry hasn't used the antibacterial hand-wash gel for hours. There is nothing that Garry can't do.
He is going to go to the source of this music. He is going to go Downstairs Into the Forbidden Basement Storage Area, and he is going to lead a numberless team of harpists up into the library. He will walk slowly, at the front of a long line of forgotten, lonely musicians. He will drum them into a march, and bring them up in the lift. He will free them from the dark. He will do it in memory of the bored office workers he left behind. It is too late for them now, and behind a barricade of paperbacks, it may even be too late for him. But it will not, (he thinks, banging his fist against the Staff Manual) be too late for the music makers.
Where are my men?! he shouts. Where is my pigging team?
Linda and Katerina turn to face him. John and Garry are still AWOL. The girls will have to do.
The borrower who writes all the letters of complaint ambles over to join them. For once he is not complaining. The music seems to have subdued him. He offers himself as a willing helper. Bob gives him the once-over, and, satisfied that he is (a) male and (b) has decent biceps, he slaps him on the back and puts him to work with Linda and Katerina on Manning The Defences.
Linda is still thinking about the instructions from The Boss. She can’t quite figure out who’s meant to escape, but she carries on stacking the books on the chairs anyway. She is certain that it isn’t any of them, otherwise, surely they would have just Exited The Library In An Orderly Fashion when the noise started. She hopes she hasn’t got it wrong. As the Health And Safety Warden, it would have been her job to make sure that happened. But then Bob took charge. She couldn’t stop him. And her job is to Keep Everyone Safe, and that seems to be what Bob is trying to do. She takes a gulp of the gin and picks up some more books, satisfied that they are all Working Towards The Same Goal.
Bob stops to take stock of the situation. The barricade is more than adequate, he thinks. No one is getting in or out. Not on my watch. The noise doesn’t show any signs of abating, but this doesn’t trouble Bob. He is at his peak, after all. This couldn’t have come at a better time. He puffs out his chest and listens to the music, he listens hard. He is invincible, he thinks, he is God.
Katerina’s ears prick up and she forgets what just happened in the Computer Room. She hurries towards Bob and the barricade. She feels a glow of pride at the wall of Mills and Boons she’s personally carried over and stacked together. It is a wall of pink, full of silly romance and dashing heroes, but with the noise, this wall has started to throb, too, and Katerina begins to understand it has a power of its own.
Bob’s in control of all of this, Katerina thinks. She knows if she sticks by him, she will be okay. She carries on piling up books, more westerns this time, with their tales of renegade sharp-shooters and dusty bars spilling over into her subconscious.
Good girl! Bob says, slapping her bum. Normally, this kind of thing would make Katerina explode, but she finds herself giggling instead. She thinks about Bob’s big hands, Bob’s big manly hands, and stops what she’s doing to watch him. He is masterfully using the sellotape as a rope, binding the chairs together into the greatest barricade ever. Katerina feels safe. Below the hum of the noise, the books are imprinting a story in her mind. It is a story of an independent woman who was unhappy until she finally submitted to the love of a powerful man.
The smell of fresh sweat wafts over to Katerina from Bob’s armpits. She flicks her hair and tries to catch his eye, but he is consumed by the Task At Hand and fails to notice. She grabs another armful of Mills and Boons and moves closer to Bob. She lowers them slowly, sensually onto the growing pile already on the chair in front of him. She has Bob’s attention now, she thinks. She can feel his eyes burning through the soft fabric of her skirt.
It is a few years ago and John is sat in The Office with The Boss. There had been an incident and, sitting in that chair still sweating and mouth dry, John is now staring at the faceless silhouette sat between him and the window.
It is the week after the incident and John has gone to See Someone About It.
The lady smells of sticks that get burned and replaced by other sticks. John has helped other ladies like this one find what they were looking for in the library before. But this one has clearly been chaining these sticks one after the other twenty-four hours a day for years, and is now here to try to help John.
The lady tells John to close his eyes. John closes his eyes then opens them again straight away.
“Is everything alright?” asked the lady.
John gulps. “Yes thank you.”
The lady doesn’t accuse John of lying; she just asks what it was he saw.
“Colours…colourful nonsense. Usurper…library…search…EVERYTHING!”
The lady lights another stick and tells John to clear his mind. The lady then asks him to think of an empty field, and to place himself in it. The lady tells John to breathe slowly and deeply, and as John breathes slowly and deeply, she tells him to think of his favourite thing ever. John thinks of Dewey Decimal Classification. He thinks of Dewey and breathes slowly and deeply and smiles.
It is a week after. John has not yet been back to The Library. He is back with the lady and her burning sticks. The lady brings out a laptop and John eyes it suspiciously. The lady tells John to close his eyes and go back to his field. He is back in the field and breathing deeply and is smiling. He touches the grass and thinks of 823.914. He looks at a tree and shouts “634!”
“Excuse me?” asks the lady.
John doesn’t answer.
“John? John are you there?”
“I’d like you to come back to the room now, I would like you to look at something. Just open your eyes slowly.”
John opens his eyes slowly. The room comes back into focus. The lady is standing in front of him. She has the laptop in her hand. The lady turns the laptop round so that John can see the screen. The screen is white and there is one word on it. John starts to sweat. The lady can see that John is getting wound up.
“Now John, whenever you see this in the future, I would like you to breathe deeply and slowly. Breathe deeply and slowly. That’s right, deeply and slowly. Every time you see this in the future you are to breathe deeply and slowly and think of your field, and think of how calm you are in that field. Breathe deeply and slowly and take yourself to where you are happiest. Close your eyes, and breathe in. Hold it there and think of your field. Then open your eyes and slowly breathe out. Okay?”
John’s eyes are closed and his face is going blue.
“It’s okay John. You can open your eyes and breathe out and everything will be okay.”
John is in the field. Katerina is there. She is wearing a white dress and walking towards him with flowers in her hair.
John opens his eyes and looks at the screen. Then he looks at Mike who is looking back at him like someone looks when they’re watching a film where they know someone is about to die really horribly.
John looks at the screen. Then back at Mike, then at Katerina. Katerina is looking at him like someone looks when they watch, from the other side of the room, a priceless vase falling to the floor. John is completely calm. He closes his eyes again and looks around the field. Everything is fine. Everything is as it should be. John leaves the field and comes back to the Computer Room. He puts his hand around Katerina and kisses her. Mike watches Katerina try to get him away. Then he watches Katerina slap John really hard and storm out of the room muttering angrily.
John turns to Mike. Mike doesn’t know where to look except back at the screen.
“Fucking Google,” John says.
Mike opened a new browser window. The computer crackled as it loaded the webpage. Mike tapped his fingers on the desk, cycling through the computer processes that the system was performing in order to access the internet. Mike didn't mind that the computers were slow. He knew how they worked and what it took to keep them running. No one else understood this, they never asked, they just treated him like part of the furniture.
Mike wondered if, one day, when he felt in the mood, he could turn up to work in a chicken costume, or juggling firebrands, or naked save for a strategically placed wreath of ivy, and anyone would notice.
Probably not, he thought, they think I'm part of the furniture, part of the fabric of this place.
He hummed a little, matching the modulation of the music that reverberated through the computer room.
The computer finished crackling and loaded the library intranet page.
Mike clicked the link for 'search' and resumed waiting as the computer began crackling once more.
Mike thought about the server and the workstations and the backup system in the basement and the antiquated wires that connected them all together. Mike thought of the system as a 'she'. In his mind, he pictured the system as an ancient, creaking multi-limbed creature, like an octopus or a squid or a kraken or something else from the sea, a creature out of its home environment, requiring constant attention to keep it going and make sure it sees another day. Mike felt a sense of satisfaction and responsibility and slight arousal at the thought of servicing this vast, female creature every day. 'She' needed him, even if no one else did.
The search page was nearly loaded.
The door to the computer room flew open, and one of the librarians strode in, the skinny, balding one from the front desk. Mike paid full attention to the computer.
John marched in, his mind thrumming with Dewey decimal numbers and the topics they represented. "Birds of the
The computer guy was in there, sat at a workstation. He had that far-away look in his eye that always made John uncomfortable, a look that suggested he was fantasising about something or someone, and not in a good way. John clenched his fists involuntarily and went to an empty workstation. He needed to double check one of the Dewey numbers that Linda had told him.
The computer didn't work, remaining unresponsive to his attempts to start it. The next one he tried started but only displayed a blank, blue screen. The third one started, but then froze, displaying a confusing and slightly disturbing warning about a 'dirty volume'. John sighed. There was only one computer left to try. He walked over to the computer guy.
"Are you going to be long?"
Mike looked up, breaking out of a reverie about fibre-optic cables, and looked into John's sweaty face.
Unable to copy a document, thought Mike, this guy doesn't know what a right-mouse button is for.
"I really need to check something in the catalogue", said John, "it's urgent."
"Alright, keep your pants on", said Mike in a squeaky mock-Liverpudlian accent, "I'm just looking for something myself."
Mike turned back to the screen.
John looked at the computer, and the webpage it displayed.
The white webpage with one large, colourful word on it.
John's knuckles whitened as he gripped the back of the chair, his vision darkening until all he could see was the word on the screen in front of him: 'Google'.
- Restricted Items
- Terrorist Threat
- Procedures for ejecting Vagrants from the Reference Section
- Policy on relationships between Library Personnel
- Forbidden Areas
- Lost Property
- Sick leave, holidays and breaks
- Appropriate Dress
- Dealing with 'Borrowers'
- Risk Assessment (Google)
Garry is still working hard on the barricade when Linda approaches him. He notices she has his cling film in the front pocket of his dungarees, but he doesn't ask her for it. He smiles. Cling-film has never been further from his mind. He looks at his hands and they are smeared with dust and ink and his heart is beating fast and there is sweat on the back of his neck and he does not mind at all.
Garry knows his antibacterial hand gel is still in his bag, but he isn't tempted to go and get it. His immune system is pumping. He can feel healthy bacteria and white blood cells multiplying in his arteries. His blood is pure vitamin C. His feelings are only about 2% anxiety, which is a personal best. A few minutes ago, Bob clapped him on the back so hard he nearly fell over, and when Garry looked at him, wondering what was going to come next, Bob just made a fist and held it out to him.
'Good man,' he'd said, 'glad to have you on my team.'
Garry had slowly lifted his own fist and knocked it against Bob's, who had nodded. The words 'Good Man' and 'Team' glowed into all the dark places inside Garry and lit them up like a buzzing fluorescent sign.
He wiped his forehead on his sleeve and turned back to the barricade. He didn't wonder what it was all for. The music was a kind of rhythm that kept him working and filled him with special manly strength. He heard John scream, but only vaguely, and it didn't seem the kind of noise (a distinctly un-manly sound, Garry thought, thinking in the new Style of Bob) that he needed to worry about or pay any attention to. When Linda motioned for him to come away from the barricade and follow her into the children's part of the library, he left his post only reluctantly.
'You didn't finish your induction,' Linda says. She taps the roll of cling film against her arm, as if it was a baton or a baseball bat. Her hair has fallen out of its ribbon and is sticking to her damp cheeks. 'I take My Position as New Staff Mentor very seriously,' she explains quietly, 'even in The Present Circumstances. For example,' she says, 'I notice you've not had a break. You are legally entitled to a Lunch Break.'
Garry is about to tell Linda that he doesn't need a break, that the building itself is going to be food and water to him from now on, for the rest of his life, but Linda pushes him backwards and he falls into a soft bean-bag. The bean-bag is covered in a pattern of caterpillars reading books, and Garry has time to wonder if they are actually book worms, which would make sense, before Linda thrusts a large black hardback volume at him. It looks like a Bible.
'The Boss did most of this herself, although I have made a few additions when Circumstances Have Called for Them,' Linda says proudly. 'You need to have a lunch break, and you need to read this.'
Linda turns away, but she doesn't go far. She walks to a soft chair that looks like a throne, and starts pulling up the cushions and patting at the upholstery with the palms of her hands. After a few minutes, she pulls out a green bottle from under the seat, and ambles away. Garry takes his lunch out of his back-pack and opens the book.
Can someone write something and finish it off for us please? We'd really like to know what happens next. I kind of like the idea of John getting into a brawl, but I don't think he's the type. And we don't know what type Mike is yet. Or what he's found out on Wiki.
800 words max, answers on a postcard (or to email@example.com)
Emma and Jenn
Rosalyn has discovered that if she rubs the petrified lemon against the red leather gloves in her collection it gives off a low-level, slightly sharp, hum, an octave lower than her comfort pitch. She can’t help but join in. Hmmmm. She hasn’t quite hit the right note, but it doesn’t matter because it’s a rather lovely minor chord. She slips the left glove on for better leverage. It sounds better if she doesn’t look, or think too much.
So she stares at the observation monitor and rubs and hums in time with Linda tapping her clipboard. This is not satisfactory. Linda does not have good rhythm. Linda has the rhythm of a fly in a cobweb.
What Rosalyn needs is a third note to make the sound better. But since she’s using both hands and her voice already, she’s unsure what she might do. And the more she thinks about that, the more her voice wavers off the lemon minor. Although this isn’t so bad.
The sound now reminds her of a picture from the Hubble telescope, of Omega Centuri. She images the cluster glittering in her ribcage as she pings and hisses against the rub of leathery lemon, and realises what she needs is not another note but a bigger sound.
The LED lights blink in agreement.
The old books are absorbing her music like moss does light. She paces up and down past the shelves, hearing how when she passes bare metal the lemon becomes more limey. This isn’t satisfactory either. And has the added effect of reminding of her Linda again.
She rubs the lemon more vigorously, so it chafes her palm through the glove. If she judders while she does it, she can create a new, slightly more resonant effect which she likes. Still not loud enough.
Rosalyn suddenly has a flash of The Boss hearing her music right at the top of the building, and joining in with her, like Pavarotti without the beard. She wouldn’t be able to resist. In fact no one who hears her could resist. She is the Siren of the Basement. She flicks her hair, feels the green ribbon slide against her neck. Her larynx opens.
The doors open and she walks out into the library. Her legs are shaking so much that the carpet doesn't feel like carpet at all, but the surface of a large sponge cake.
Bob is using sellotape like rope, and is tying the legs of the plastic chairs together. He's arranging the chairs in a long line in front of the doors. Katerina is lifting piles of westerns and Mills and Boons from the shelves and stacking them on the chairs. They are making, Linda realises, Some Kind Of Barricade.
Linda needs John. John is leaning against one of the windows. He is breathing on the window and drawing hearts and arrows into the condensation. Every time Bob shouts a command or an instruction, John flinches. He is humming, and he looks happy. Linda wants to crash through the sellotape-chairs-paperbacks barrier and escape into the world outside. She wants to breathe in the traffic-and-chips scented air outside the library. She wants to know she will never, ever have to burp alka-seltzer when she is singing 'Head Shoulders Knees and Toes' ever again.
'John,' - Linda says. John turns and looks at her. He smiles, and Linda thinks, for one second, he is going to hug her.
'John,' she says again, because he is turning back to the window. 'I need your help. I've had a message from the boss.'
John pulls himself upright, looks over his shoulder at Bob, Garry and Katerina, who are still building the barricade, and coughs.
'You went up there?' Linda nods. 'Do you need a chair? Shall I get you some ice?'
'I've got a message,' she says again, 'could be some instructions.'
'Okay,' he says. 'What is it?'
'793.809,' says Linda.
She is reading the numbers from the back of her hand. Some of them are smudged, but her hands were trembling when she wrote them down. She can't be blamed. No-one else was going to go up there for instructions, were they? John closes his eyes. Linda wonders what he is doing. She wonders if his mind is full of Browne cards and filing cabinets. John inhales sharply and opens his eyes.
'Escape and escapology. Give me the next one.'
John laughs. 'That one's easy,' he says. 'Puzzles and mazes. What's next?'
John takes a long time to answer. Linda looks at him carefully. He is frowning gently, and his nose is twitching. Perhaps the answer isn't in his head, Linda thinks. Perhaps he is sniffing it out of the air. Linda counts in her head. She gets to twenty eight and John still doesn't answer.
'Do you know, John?' she asks, 'we can Google it, if you like?'
John looks at her. He opens his mouth, and closes it again. Linda puts her hands up. She is scared. She forgot about John and Google.
'Sorry, sorry John. I forgot. I just forgot. It's this music,' she waves her arms, 'I'm dehydrated, it's the stress.'
A few years ago, there was an incident with John and Google. Now no-one is supposed to mention it to him. No-one is supposed to even use the word in his hearing. Linda made the addition to the Staff Manual herself. She thumps herself on the side of the head. She, of all people, should have known better.
'Keep it together, John - come on now.'
'Loneliness,' John says. 'That's what it is.'
'301.113. It's loneliness.'
'Right.' Linda is looking puzzled. The messages from The Boss usually make some kind of sense. Perhaps the music is affecting her too.
Katerina has stopped carrying books and comes over to stand by John.
'Do you really know the whole of Dewey off by heart?' she says. She breathes out between a gap in her front teeth. Her breathing sounds almost admiring. Linda wonders if John is concentrating, or just swaying for the sake of it.
'Don't distract him,' Linda says, 'there's two more, John, are you up to it?
John waves his hands, and keeps his eyes closed.
'Give them to me,' he says, 'while I'm in the zone.'
'Okay. 621.38454. Five decimal places, John. I'm sorry. Can you do it?'
John waves his hands in the air, as if the answer is floating by him. He inhales deeply. He tugs the hair at the back of his neck. Katerina looks at him.
'John,' she says, 'we're depending on you. I know you can do it.'
Linda repeats the number. There is a crash from by the non-revolving doors.
'Citizen's band pigging radio!' Bob shouts, and bounds over. He is sweating heavily, but suddenly, Katerina doesn't seem to mind. 'Citizen's band radio!' he shouts again. 'Come on, Kit-Kat, we need you over here at the main defences.'
Katerina and Bob hurry away. John opens his eyes and crumples against the wall. Linda pats him on the arm.
'Five decimals, John - you can't blame yourself. You're not a machine.'
'What's the last one, Linda?' John asks. His voice sounds soft and hollow, because his chin is on his chest and his shoulders are slumped.
'It's, well, it's 331.137,' Linda says, hesitantly. 'I know that one.'
'Yes,' John says. 'Unemployment. We'd better tell the others. But first, if you don't mind, I'd like a moment alone.'
John turns away. He pulls the cuffs of his jumper over his hands, cups them over his mouth, and screams into them. Then he blunders away, towards the Computer Room.
John is concerned. John doesn’t quite know how he feels about being trapped in the library. Every time he tries to think about it, the music seeps into his brain and makes him forget what it was he was trying to think. He feels like someone has spilled correction fluid over the book of him, and all the facts of Who He Is and What He Wants have all been erased. He hopes it isn’t permanent. He thinks.
He is still staring at the revolving doors. The revolving doors that aren’t actually revolving anymore. He wonders if they are still called ‘revolving doors’ after the emergency stop button has been pressed and they have ground to a halt. He wonders if they are just ‘doors’ now.
The revolving door was invented in 1888 by Theophilus von Kammel.
This fact presents itself from somewhere deep in John’s brain. And then there is just the music again, such lovely music.
John imagines the life he will live inside the library perimeter with Katerina. Until now, he has always been a man of words, but he knows he will hunt and forage for this woman if he has to. He will crawl on his knees to let her know he means business, that he is as much of a man as Bob is. He feels the music creep along his vertebrae as he lowers himself to the floor. He sounds like a glockenspiel. My bones are becoming one with the music, John thinks. He wonders if there is a name for that.
He can see Katerina across the library. She is smiling in a way that says, I Love You John, I Love Only You. This plays to the tune of Three Blind Mice along John’s spine.
John knows he is still a book, deep down. But now he feels like the book has hollow parts, and he can’t quite remember what was in those spaces. The music echoes through the emptiness inside him, banging into childish drawings of hearts and half-remembered lists of Edible Plants Of The British Isles.
John! What the pigging hell are you doing down on all fours!? Get up you great lump!
John’s music stops for a second as he registers Bob’s voice, but he finds it hard to focus on the sweaty man in front of him. He wants to sink back down into the part of the book where there is a nice picture of blackberries, but Bob grabs him under the armpits and yanks him upwards.
Light usually glows through the window of The Office door. This light painstakingly forces itself through the layers of dead skin cells and sweat that have collected on the glass. Linda always gets a hankering for Pernod whenever she stands outside The Office. But not now. The light is missing. There is only blackness beyond the door.
Linda thinks about knocking. She knows she should be in control now. She is the Health And Safety Warden, and this is definitely a Health And Safety issue. Emboldened, she makes a fist and raps on the door twice. The noise of the knocking sounds like drums. It fits so perfectly with the music. She knocks again, louder, and hears the notes soar up to meet the knocks. The music is wrapping itself around her. She starts to sway. She takes the roll of cling film out of her dungarees pocket and uses it to tap the walls on either side of her. She spins then, eyes closed, limbs flailing. She moves up and down the corridor like a whirling dervish.
She doesn’t hear the high-pitched screech coming from the lift shaft. She doesn’t see The Boss slip silently into The Office and the door click shut.
Now the music has been echoing through the library and his skull for a few minutes, his normal thoughts are returning to him. He stands up and listens at the door. The staff seem to have everything in hand, although several borrowers are still walking around aimlessly. The borrowers remind him of the extra football players in the game he used to play on his Commodore 64 when he was younger. You only got to be in charge of one player and move them around on the screen towards the goal with your joystick. The other players just walked up and down the pitch on invisible grid-lines, and kicked the ball away from you if your path intersected with theirs. Even if they were on your team. It wasn't a good game, and he prefers Championship Manager now, but all the same, the borrowers look like that and no-one seems to be looking after them.
Privately, he thinks, 'that is typical of them,'. He doesn't like the library staff. They make fun of his tee-shirt (it says: 'Ctrl-Alt-Delete' on it and it was a Christmas present and there is Nothing Wrong With It. They only talk to him when they have a problem. Some of them can't even double click properly. He knows for a fact that Linda has a problem with click-and-drag, and that she blames the computer, and indirectly, him for this.
Mike is responsible for training the staff in ICT. He makes them do ECDL tests. He knows they hate him for this more than they hate his tee-shirt.
Mike doesn't think the music is that bad, although he can see the scattering effect it is having on most of the others. Mike is able to let the music fade into the background. He doesn't know why he can do this and the others can't. It is because he has been playing computer games with electronic music tracks on them for most of his life. He is almost immune to sounds.
Mike packs away his computer fixing tools and slots them into his tool belt. He reboots the computer and clicks the little blue 'e'. So much for reference books and information professionals. He is going to go on Wikipedia and find out what is going on.
Linda thinks about cocktails. She wonders if the bottle of Gin and the lemon she hid in bottom of the padded Story-seat is still there. She is only dimly aware of Bob, issuing commands and making the staff and borrowers bring the contents of their handbags and lunch boxes and empty them out on the counter. She hears someone say, 'we're going to need rope, and lots of it,' and then she is back on the beach, listening to the ice rattle against the side of her glass.
Linda's eyes are drifting closed when she realises that Bob has put himself in charge, and Bob has chosen seconds and thirds in command. All men. Which is sexist. And this is something that as the Equality and Diversity Representative, she has a duty to challenge. And as the Designated First Aider and Health And Safety Warden, she, really, should be in charge. If something is going on. She opens her eyes wide and drags her attention away from the music.
Linda thinks about going Upstairs. She might need to knock on the door of The Office. She might need to get The Boss. She feels scared. But she should be in charge and being in charge sometimes means making decisions that are uncomfortable. Sometimes even unpopular. Being in charge can be a thankless task. It is not all about green face-paint, stab-proof underwear, and glory. That is something, she thinks, Bob has clearly overlooked.
Linda slips away from the others while they care counting how many borrowers are in the building, steps into the lift, and presses the button for Upstairs. Below her feet, rattling up the hollow tube of the lift shaft, she can hear rumbling that seems to be coming from the Basement Forbidden Area.
Bob had followed Katerina out of the new books room as soon as he'd heard the noise. He pushed past the whelp from Ref and glanced at the new guy, who was walking towards them with a wide, vacant eyed smile plastered over his face.
Bob knew what was going on. He grabbed his socks and leapt into action. He was scared. He was excited. He was fully trained. He was at his peak. He knew he only reached his peak once or twice a year. He knew none of the others would know how lucky they were that his peak had peaked on the day of the noise.
'Shut the doors,' he says to Linda, who is still tugging at John's arm. Linda looks at him. She is smiling too. They are all smiling. There are a few borrowers wandering about, looking for someone to be in charge, looking, maybe, for the source of the noise so they can lay their heads against it and go to sleep forever. The new guy actually has tears in his eyes. Somewhere over to his left, Katerina is giggling.
'Shut the doors!' he shouts - 'seal the pigging building. Get the borrowers out. Are the Book Group still here?'
Bob looks around him. He gestures with his hands. He points towards the doors. No-one moves and the noise still continues.
'John, you plum.' John looks at Bob. He focuses on his face, but only very slowly, as if he is drunk. 'John, get those doors. There's no time for evacuation now. We have to seal off the perimeter and do a head count later. Find out who we've got. What provisions we have.'
John steps towards the doors hesitantly. There is a big red button at the side of the electrical box that works the revolving mechanism. It is for use in an emergency only. John stares at it for a second or two, as if he is trying to figure out how it works.
'Press it, John.' Bob says. He says it 'grimly', or 'balefully.'
'Garry, get yourself over here. You're new, but you'll do. What's in that bag?'
Bob gathers his men around him. His team. His troop. He nods at them, and bends to put his socks back on. They aren't much, but they're all he's got.
John presses the button and the doors stop revolving.
Even as she headed out to see what was going on, a Danger sign flashed in the back of her mind. From day one, she’d entertained the thought that John was the kind of person who might one day be part of a news story that concluded with the words: Before Turning The Gun On Himself. She wondered if her ‘hunch’ was perhaps now coming true. She wondered who he’d mow down first. She hoped it would be Bob.
As she got closer, she could see Linda had a death-grip on John’s arm. Katerina got excited that Linda might be wrestling John for his gun, and wondered what the outcome of that would be. She thought about how quiet the library usually was at this time of day. She wasn’t sure if there had been some weird kind of tear in the fabric of the universe, but things definitely didn’t feel right. Something seemed to be making the animals cranky.
Linda was waving a clipboard and dragging John towards the lift. At this close range, Katerina was a bit disappointed to see there was no gun at all. She thought to herself: This is no ‘gun’ at all, and wondered if she could make it into a clever joke or whether it would always be just a bad pun. She made the decision then and there to repeat the line to Bob every time he tried to bench press the Encyclopedia Britannica. She decided she would make a gun shape with her hand whenever she said it, too. The terribleness of the pun would drive Bob mad. The thought of this makes Katerina grin uncontrollably. She is still grinning when she hears the noise.
Garry's feelings at the moment are mainly anxiety. Slightly more than usual.
He turns back to the rubber plant. He has a special cloth and a spray bottle of water. He is cleaning the leaves like Linda told him to. He is wondering if he is going to have to do this all day. He is wondering if he should clean the underside of the leaves as well as the tops. He is wondering if it is actually good for the plants to have their leaves polished. He hears a noise.
It is a most amazing noise. It is a cross between the language spoken in the Garden of Eden, the sound of grass growing and the music of the spheres. He stops very still. He is not sure if he is the only person hearing this noise. The noise carries on. It isn't a song or a tune, it's just one big noise that seems to ring out from the walls and the floors. He could close his eyes and feel it in his jaw and sternum. He could close his eyes and imagine it like light. It would look like a rainbow striped door curtain. It would be beautiful. It is beautiful.
Garry still has his fingers on the 78th rubber plant leaf. It is firm and waxy and full of health. Linda looks after these plants well. The leaf is trembling in his hand. His hands are trembling, but the leaf is vibrating. The leaf is vibrating in sympathy with the wonderful noise he is nearing.
Garry feels tears start to form in his eyes. Garry puts one hand on his heart. For the first time in weeks, he is not worrying about his heart. He is not thinking that he is going to die soon. He is thinking that his heart will be vibrating at the same frequency as this wonderful music and this will make him have some kind of superpower. Maybe he will be able to move large objects with his mind. Maybe he will be able to find lost dogs by holding a pendulum over a map.
Garry sees Linda and John come back into the main library. They are looking at the ceiling, at the windows, at the doors, with slack, amazed faces. He sees Katerina bound into the main area. She is holding a roll of sellotape but she is smiling. She is smiling as if the muscles in her face are not used to it. Bob comes out of the back room, his feet bare, his socks in one hand.
The borrowers move away from the shelves and into the space at the front of the library. They are looking at each other. They are making sure that everyone is hearing this wonderful noise. No one says anything. Apart from the amazing noise the library is completely silent.
Garry places the spray bottle of water and the cloth neatly on the window ledge and walks over to where his new workmates are standing.
this chapter was submitted by Richard Birkin
John is sitting looking over at Katerina sat sideways. This is a new thing. For a moment John thinks about going over there and enquiring about what the problem is. He puts his full attention into imagining what it would be like...to check that it is feasible before committing to anything.
John would get up and walk around his desk and stride confidently in the direction of Katerina. There would be wind in his hair, and all the other people in the library would move in slow motion. Linda may or may not try and put herself and her clipboard in the way of John and Katerina, but John would brush her aside like those coloured bits of plastic that stop flies going in your kitchen. John would appear at her desk and take the paper knife from Bob, place it at his chin and tell him what was what. And what what was was Bob not bothering Katerina again. In fact it might be that Bob would maybe work completely elsewhere.
John is feeling confident about the scenario. It is almost plausible. It is the most plausible out of all the scenarios. The ones from today at least.
There is adrenalin in John. John is feeling pumped. John stands up and walks around his desk. As John takes his first stride in the direction of Katerina an obstruction presents itself. The obstruction is a woman. The woman is taller and wider than John. The woman has eclipsed Katerina and Bob. There is no way around her, and nothing to do but ask, Yes?
I have an enquiry, says the woman who is large and wide.
John notices that she has some saliva at the side of her mouth. He almost says something about it. But no, it might be permanent. It might not be accidental. This is not what John needed. Now there is a cocktail of adrenalin and inner conflict going around in John.
John moves around the woman, who is staring at him, who is staring at the side of her mouth. John is cowering backwards and sweating. John breaks free from the gravity of the woman and turns around to face Katerina. But John doesn't see Katerina. John sees Linda. Linda has a clipboard and is standing in John's way.
Is everything alright John? Linda sounds more inquisitive than concerned.
John screams the first thing that comes into his head: RAINBOW STRIPE NYLON DOOR CURTAIN!
Everyone in the library looks at John, who looks around at everybody in the library. John is sweating.
John sees Katerina bending around Linda to see what's going on.
John wonders if there is such a place as 'completely elsewhere'.
His morning reps. are done and dusted now, and he's feeling pigging great. Great. He wants to roar, but the last time he tried it he got in trouble.
He pulls open the bottom drawer of his desk. He opens his camo-print soap-bag. He sprays Brut down the neck of his shirt in the direction of his armpits. He flaps his arms like a chicken and winks over his shoulder at Katerina. She is ignoring him again. He takes off his shoes and socks and delves deeper into his soap-bag. Where are the pigging toenail clippers?
He leans over and takes a paper knife from Katerina's desk and uses it to saw at the yellow rinds of his big toe-nails. Finally, the silly bint looks up.
You're a dirty shit, do you know that Bob?
What he says, cupping one hand around his ear. I didn't hear you love. Speak a bit louder the next time, eh?
I said, you're a - never mind. She huffs and turns her chair sideways so she can't see him.
Bob laughs. He is in peak physical condition. He is on top of the world. Nothing can touch him. Nothing.
John is not asleep. John is just resting his forehead on the cool wood of the Enquiry Desk. He has not had an enquiry in the last hour and twenty-seven minutes. He is having an ‘existential crisis.’ He wants to answer riddles. He imagines how good it would be if they had a library Sphinx. He would make it sit by the main entrance, and each morning, everyone would have to wait on the steps outside for John to arrive and solve that day’s riddle. Only then would the Sphinx allow them to pass through the doors and get on with the daily grind. Nobody else would be able to answer. John would be the hero. And then he’d have no trouble attracting Katerina. She would stop by his desk, perhaps even perch on the edge of it, her leg swinging 45 degree arcs between him and the floor. And all the time, her body language would read: I Want You. You Are My Hero.
Wakey Wakey!! Ooh, Somebody had a Late Night, did they?
John can see worlds in the woodgrain. He imagines himself in the desert, the Pyramids rising out of the sand.
Well, at least you’re Actually AT The Desk. I did notice it was left Un...Personned earlier. We Can’t Have That. Are you OK? Can I help? Do you need a hug?
John is suddenly back in the library. Linda is holding what must be the new guy by the arm like he's a child near a busy road. The new guy doesn't make eye contact. The new guy looks at the place on his arm where Linda's fingers are. John nods and mumbles that he’s fine, and that no, he doesn’t need a hug, he will be okay.
This is Garry, he's New. Garry, this is the Reference guy.
John, says John, and holds his hand out. Garry lifts his arm but Linda still has hold of it, so the handshake is lopsided and strange. Linda doesn't let go. Right, Linda says and bounds off in the direction of the rubber plants, dragging Garry behind her. John wonders why Katerina can’t offer out hugs the way Linda does.
John thinks about hugging Katerina.
John’s brain laughs at John for this.
John tries to think about talking to Katerina.
John just thinks about chewing gum.
Perhaps, she wonders, someone other than The Boss knows she is here. Perhaps someone left it for her. Perhaps it was a present.
She holds it up to her nose. If it smelled like anything, the smell is long gone now. That makes her sad. It makes her think of moss and flowers and the fact that it is so dark down here nothing can hold its colour. Nothing can grow.
She shakes her hair over her shoulders and begins to plait. Her hair is so long that if she tilts her head back, it touches the floor. The ribbon will keep it out of the way. It will help her to think. It doesn't matter that no-one will see how nice she looks.
He feels, if he's completley honest with himself, extraordinarily potent today. He likes the word 'potent'. It reminds him of sex, and God, and himself. Potent, potent, he thinks. He stands back from the desk and cracks his knuckles again, this time over his head.
The new whelp Linda was dragging about has reappeared. He is pale and trembling. He is holding a back pack in front of him like it is a shield.
All right, guv? Bob says, and takes one step back into the space between his and Katerina's desks. He starts doing squat thrusts, feeling the satisfying tug from Achilles to groin. He grimaces. He puts his hands on his hips and puffs his chest out. He goes faster. The good smell of clean sweat wafts up to his nose from his armpits.
You've got to put yourself through some pain to get the benefit, he says. He looks over his shoulder to see if the daft nag is watching him, but she is leaning over an open book on her desk, a wisp of sticky tape dangling from one finger. Garry is watching her.
Pay no attention, he says, jerking his head backwards. I reckon she's on the blob. Lunch?
Excuse me? Garry says.
Do. You. Want. To. Meet. Up. At. Lunch. Bob says, spitting his words in time to the quickening tempo of his thrusting. Man. To. Man. A. Swift. Pint. He stops, stands, shakes himself loose.
I stick to a couple of tins of tuna and a creatine shake myself, but there's a sandwich shop round the corner if you're into that sort of thing.
Bob makes 'that sort of thing' - eating sandwiches, sound as if it's in the same category of hobbies as dressing in women's clothing.
Garry opens his mouth gently. He's about to speak when Linda appears behind him. She claps him on the shoulder and he jumps as if she's just chucked a pot of boiling water at him.
There you are! She says. Right! Induction over! Good! Now you know what you're doing, lets get on with it, shall we?