One of the new roles of the modern-day librarian is to act as unpaid therapist to the general public. In Grey Gables we have a selection of plastic cards. The choice of card is a direct line to the unconscious. You can choose from traditional images of Georgian town houses, teddy bears with legs akimbo, kittens climbing trellises and graffiti stained underpasses. What about a kitten sprayed with graffiti or a soft toy abandoned on a ring road? That is too close to the wrong sort of human experience, the one that is never discussed but informs our day-to-day lives. Yes, I am talking about that army of bandaged bears with sawdust spilling from the seams of their sailor suits. You and me darling, shop-soiled soft toys!
I have grown a beard to look more like the traditional therapist. I remember visiting Dr Bozovich on Tuesday afternoons when he treated me for Groubillard’s Syndrome before declaring me untreatable. ‘Madness is a journey, a reintegration of disparate parts into a new entity. Good luck with it!’ He had a grizzled grey beard and a chilly bedside manner, he was always drifting off and, once, when he thought I wasn’t looking, he began flossing behind my back. I have adopted his manner with the general public. After listening to lots of waffle about reservation fees and delays on public transport I ask, while twisting the grey hairs on my chin, ‘what exactly do you want?’
I offer the patient a chair and tell them to relax. An Irish woman sat down and told me she had stopped menstruating and had trouble with her teenage son. I have the sort of face that elicits confidences, confidences I don’t really want but therapeutically I can turn it to my advantage. I nodded sympathetically while I tapped on the card display with my biro drawing her attention back to the imagery. ‘When did you feel you needed a new card? You say you lost it… wasn’t that more a deliberate act. A mislaying. Do you have a young man in your life at the moment?’
‘I’m married but we lead separate lives and I’ve always felt I was lacking something… there’s a space in my wallet between my organ donor card and my Tesco loyalty…’
‘Please go on…’ With a bit of luck I could draw this out to lunchtime and keep at bay the circling lunatic, the moist-eyed and mummified Dr Alexander Bendo who claims he was a ‘gherkin’ and killed men with his bare hands in Vietnam– although the Gurkhas were never there.
‘I must keep up to date with all the various social media without losing touch with the paperback.’
I place the selection of cards in front of her and briefly covered her hand with mine. ‘I think we know which one you’ll choose…’
Yup! it was the one of St Paul’s Cathedral tagged with purple spray paint. ‘How did you do that?’ she said.
‘You like to keep your feet in both worlds– the old and the new… and yet in your eyes there is a great sadness, a nostalgia for home and heartache.’ I scribbled my phone number on a post-it in case of complications and stuck it on the dome of St Paul’s.
When Amanda Wang strode in five minutes later dressed like a serf from Pollyanna, white cotton trousers tucked into floppy boots I wondered how she would reveal herself. Dark hair curled above her ears, pale face and alert mischievous eyes – a little on the small side but that stunned cross-eyed look can be very attractive– and the fingers twitching nervously behind her back. ‘How great is that,’ she said enthusing over my display and when she sat down, her leg brushed against mine.
‘I need a new card. I gave mine away as a gift at the end of a meditation retreat. We were told we had to part with something valuable. I was toying with my Platinum card and then I thought knowledge, well, that really is invaluable…’
‘You see we are star dust from the first cosmic explosion, particles of blue light. All our attachments and belonging are figments of consumer society. Desire is a fabrication.’
I was growing hot under my council sweatshirt. Amanda Wang renouncing desire? while everything about her body said yes. Her carefully applied make-up, the neatly plucked eyebrows and fluttering green eyes and face shiny with Jojoba butter.
‘I will take this one…’
The Knowledge Ninja! It was like being dealt the Tower in a tarot pack. It was an unworkable card representing empowerment, erudition, abstruse research in the small hours with a smouldering gitane– the enemy of white wine and shellfish and afternoon love-making. This is the card for a woman kickboxing her way out of the kiosk queue to meet a deadline. This is the card of SERIOUSNESS.
‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘our stocks are low. You wouldn’t prefer the fiery Phoenix?’
‘You must renounce desire,’ she said and took her coat off revealing a white chemise with a black bra showing through— the oldest trick in the book.
‘Right, that will be £2.00,’ I said. Under these circumstances I was definitely not going to waive the charge.