It’s been a strange year in the library: long distance calls and misconnections, Human Resources outsourced to Poland, the lift bucking on its cable and reeled in via the hand-winch up in Grey Gables loft — hauling into daylight a cage of terrified readers, changed by their experience of dangling in the void. All this set against my unhealthy infatuation with Amanda Wang. I go on in the same way, in the same knitted tank top, with the same scratches on my forearms, with the same unmanageable lusts, penis twitching like a dowsing rod sniffing its way around the special collection. With so much time on my hands everything is interpreted symbolically. On the reservations shelf — a copy of WAIT: Why Prevarication is good for you still hasn’t been collected. The borrower was notified in the first week of December. And that borrower is me.
Problems with Amanda Wang (she blows hot and then freezing cold) continue. Dressed in a winter coat, tightly belted, and shiny boots, she told me about the Californian cult she belongs to in a place called Death-by-Sea. There they live a phased out existence with the roar of surf and the sweep of old phaser pedals, breakfasting on goat yoghurt and blueberries:
‘We are the starlight from the first primal explosion… we are matter but, sweetie, it doesn’t matter… you have to do The Turnaround. Turn suffering on its head. Disengage from lovers and family and pets…. ‘
What she says is idiotic but her face is captivating, her habit of clutching her chin to make a point. I want her to re-engage, remind her that the physical can be spiritual, for her to whisper away her hot life in my ear. Odd that she’s telling me to let go while brushing my knee by the new books display.
She’s been playing me off against Reggie Dewey Watkins, stock librarian and suede- footed beatnik, he’s been bragging by the kiosks about how he likes to overwinter in Morocco on a diet of absinthe and apricots and a big fuck off edition of Swinburne’s Collected Poems. ‘The quality of light… I would call myself a tourist of light…’ The only light Reggie’s seen is the twinkling of the fairy lights draped haphazardly over Grey Gables mantlepiece. I know for a fact he hasn’t been further east than Clacton– although he claims it was Walton-on- the-Naze. I even caught her talking to the special needs guy, Jimbo, the one who asks repeatedly: ‘ What would you have with steak?’ ‘ Can I have a glass of water?’ ‘Help me shelve!’
I need some good luck, something that will stick and make me momentarily more important than Reggie’s reminiscences of catching the Magic Bus to Afghanistan and bathing in the dying rays of the Shah’s regime: ‘caviare everywhere and the art galleries stuffed full of Warhols… Bling heaven..’
I have been shortlisted for the prestigious short story prize, The Winifred Whitby Short Fiction Award. Such luminaries as Johnny Mumbles who wrote the urban sonnet sequence Wanstead Flats is on the shortlist too and the beautiful Isabel Del Lago who writes lovingly about the sadness of every day objects. Anyone who’ s read her novella Breadboard in which she describes the scratches and dents and juices on a seasoned block of wood, a device for tracing a couple’s decline and their young daughter’s worrying eating habits, will never chop an onion again in quite the same way. I need the cheque and the champagne reception so I can come alive in performance and WOW the Wangster off her turquoise slippered feet.
Later that morning, Amanda Wang bustled into Grey Gables with a bag of organic groceries and a Guatemalan Dreamcatcher. ‘A litte prezzie for you, so you can cultivate your potential.’ She knows where I am. I am her captive audience. I cannot escape her notice even if I wanted to. ‘Let’s meet for a lunchtime drink… I’ve got a suggestion for you. No need to worry your pretty little head about it. I’ve heard all about you and it’s all good. You tell me where.”
The Rose and Crown was my choice. Next door to the Royal Marsden: wooden floors, the noticeboard in the gents crammed with jokes about lewd widowers and men who get on the wrong end of a lactation pump (‘it doesn’t stop until its had six pints!!’). The London poor in their rags and winter coats and dressing gowns peck at pints; grizzled grey faces, blasted by chemo, bodies clenched against aggressive tumours, bravely doing the crossword. People like me with nothing better to do than fiddle-arse about.
A young man to my left with the sun glinting on his motorbike helmet, switched his radio off before ordering a shandy. On the floor was a polystyrene box stamped: URGENT, HUMAN TISSUE couldn’t be that urgent, or maybe he was on the return leg of a delivery, taking time out among the horse brasses and bed warming pans to hope a little that his life would change. Pubs deal in hope. They prolong the spell of dreaming while you watch the optics and coloured liquids, the women stepping through the door and the Wurlitzer changing from purple to green. The London Pride trickles down your insides until suddenly everyone seems to be shouting at once and your shirt’s come undone. Worst of all some bastard has combed your hair against your centre-parting.
I watched white flowers blowing in the pub window box, a man in the clothes shop opposite washing down a fire extinguisher and looked up into the first floor windows of apartments. A woman peeled an orange. I had a sense of all those couples leading lives, doing time behind closed doors in a world no one knows anything about. Maybe one day me and Amanda would decorate the Christmas tree together (sustainable Norwegian spruce, naturally) with love eggs and mummified fruits and shrunken heads from her anthropological adventures.
Where was the Wang? It was ten to and the courier was starting in on a joke about a Polish man going to the opticians. The infuriating thing about people who don’t work is that they inhabit a separate time zone, a world of leisure and organic ravioli and decisions about decision-making, dawdlers and garden centre drifters. If I’m late back for public duty I get it in the neck.
Almost at the point of giving up in drifted Amanda Wang, her c0llar turned up and miniature bananas dangling from her ears, ‘hey, sweetie… I’ve got something for you…’ I misjudged the kiss and nibbled her below the ear getting a tap on the front teeth from a banana. She slapped a card on the bar that said: THE GATEWAY CENTRE and, beneath, in smaller gilt letters: No is the gateway to yes.
‘I want you to come with me…They can change your life. They can teach you The Turnaround…’
‘Thank you,’ I said.
She must have noticed my puzzled expression. ‘It’s up to you. You either go on meaning less and less each day, following a trail of ever decreasing bread crumbs and leading a life of ghastly, creeping irrelevance or…’ and she touched my hand, ‘you take a tip from a pro.’