Libraries are places for recovery—the mentally ill feel at home sitting beneath the cool blue walls. The silence helps quiet the voices in their head and, since we are inclusive, we open our doors to the tramps from the Methodist chapel: the mad, the tall and the Bosnian in dark glasses who washes his penis in the ladies’ hand basin.
The staff are also in recovery, their chequered excursions into love and marriage and drink and drugs have turned them back into the silence, back towards the cool blue walls. The failed novelist, the keyboard player from a New Romantic duo can all be seen with their name badges clattering against the shelves. They dream of love, novels, record deals and hope to connect with a reader or a Brazilian au-pair.
The beatnik lady librarian in black leggings usually hops about like a white-hot cricket. She second guesses customers before they open their mouths, causing confusion, but today Carolyn is trapped under the large window, the one tapped on by branches when buses hurtle past. She swivels in her ballet pumps, black with silver piping, and stretches by the Staff Recommends display — unable to move. Big windows promote reflection: troubled love affairs, broken marriages, what’s for supper — you only have to pass the window to grow introspective. I hate reflection. The library is a form of punishment, it makes you dwell on things that went wrong: someone you want to see but don’t dare lift the phone to. If I had the balls I’d black out the windows and stop dreaming of Amanda Wang opening her arms and whispering, ‘it’s all for you… every last bit…’
It’s the effect of time slowing down that makes you live in the past, special library time with long afternoons, time turning viscous and into treacle. I always remember the National Trust tea room on Brownsea Island where paddles stirred the green fizzy drink on the counter. That’s where things started slowing down, human blue-bottle syndrome where you gravitate towards cake shops and sugary things, buzzing about behind drawn curtains.
Slumped in vinyl chairs by the magazines are two junkies. I’ve seen him cycling around the back streets with her cradled in the handlebars of his mountain bike. At first I thought she was a child, balanced in the antlered metal bars, a willing sacrifice, until I saw the mascara and furry monkey face – the face glowing from within, lit up like a Chinese lantern.
They are always rushing somewhere, queueing in the chemists, nipping between rush hour buses. Their faces have become one expression of need: sharp, brittle noses and luminous grey flesh. I watch the man go over to the computer with the library catalogue and, in the search box, type H E R O I N. When he sits down and nods off I clear the box and then he wakes up and does it all over again until he’s sick in a carrier bag. Doesn’t know of the library’s history, the grey-ringleted janitor with egg stains on his jumper once saw Nico play in the main hall.
We are trapped in these afternoons together and I realise I have to get out of here. Get back on the drugs full-time and load up the Fiat Panda for a journey into the Wye valley, a journey into the Wye and Wherefore. The big difference between me and the junkies is that I am being paid to nod off at the counter.
An old lady approaches and tells me she has been befriended by a ladybird– what would she feed such a tiny companion? ‘I’ve tried it on lettuce ..yes, green-fly! But where for the love of God can you buy green-fly?’ I have a vision of all our lives contracting to that point, our social networks and Facebook pages focussing on a single alien interloper.