By Nik Perring.
At first the librarian smiles at him, even gives him a nod, as the doors slide open and let him in. Once he’s past her, her smile sours. She watches him carry out his usual routine, watches him while she rummages through the day’s delivery, hoping that someone’s taken her advice of what to order, of what to read next. She fingers the spines of three Mr Men books, hard and soft at the same time, and watches.
He knows his routine. He’s been doing it for months, but he’s not yet comfortable with it. He doesn’t like how it makes him feel, it’s like he’s some kind of thief.
First it’s an interested glance at the Just Returned shelves. He might pull out a couple, turn them around, read their blurbs; maybe open one and read a paragraph or two before shaking his head slightly and pushing them back. After hovering briefly by Fiction it’s on to DIY, for a more considered look.
He pulls out a book on woodwork, turns its pages. That’ll do, he thinks so he tucks it under his arm. He moves over to Self-Help then, not because he thinks he needs it but because it offers him the best view. For some reason there are not many books on that shelf and the ones that are on it are stood up, showing their covers. There are windows to look through.
He’s tense, but when he sees her he breathes out, too loudly perhaps. He’s relieved: she’s here. She’s already hoisted the child onto her knee and she is about to begin.
He sits on the lone seat, the low one with its back against the wall. Between him and her – between him and the low settee she’s sitting on, and the colourful picture book stand in front of it – is a shelf. The shelf with few books on. The shelf with windows.
He opens his book, the one about woodwork, and pretends to read, but out of the corner of his eye, through the window of books, he watches.
The librarian watches too. She’s disappointed because not one person has ordered anything that she’s suggested this week. It annoys her. She reads all the book blogs, reads The Bookseller online: she knows what’s hot. But her advice falls on deaf ears, no-one listens to what she has to say.
She doesn’t like what she sees. Doesn’t like him. He does this every week, times his visit so it coincides with that woman’s. The librarian is suspicious, this whole thing makes her feel slightly sick, but she can’t do anything about it because, officially, he’s done nothing wrong. He just sits there, in his anorak and jeans, pretending to mind his own business. She watches, waiting for him to make a move. If only he would.
The woman has her daughter on her knee. The picture book is open. The mother points and makes shapes with her mouth that her daughter – still wrapped up against the cold in a puffed pink coat and fluffy shoes – mimics, almost getting it right.
He doesn’t think the woman with the child has noticed him, he hopes she hasn’t.
It’s the librarian he worries about. He thinks she watches him, doesn’t think she trusts him. But once the mother begins he forgets all of that.
‘One. Two,’ she says. Delicate. Slowly. Her tone is sweet and calm. ‘Choo-choo.’ It’s as though there’s no-one more important in the whole world.
He closes his eyes. At first he used to remember being all tucked up in his bed – his mother, with her smell and her warmth, next to him, reading; his eyes closed, dancing to her words.
‘Driver says: All Aboard!’
He smiles. He’s not thinking of his mother now. He’s simply enjoying the story, the tone, her voice. Enjoying being read to. He lowers his book, the one on woodwork.
He hopes she’ll never stop. His smile is a grin.
And the librarian watches sourly.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 13th, 2009.