by Ann van Wijgerden
The growl of morning traffic could just be heard on the town’s main road to Manchester. Heavy glass doors made the Roman columned foyer an effective noise barrier for the carpeted inner sanctum, where Lucy sat on her squat stool, facing the last row of 800s. She checked her watch. Another ten minutes before counter duty started: enough time to finish the nonfiction.
Leaning forward, stretching upward, plucking from here, deftly inserting there, chopping, patting the bindings until all were aligned and standing to attention. Lucy polished off the section, setting the stragglers upright and in order. Then, picking up her plastic seat, she leapfrogged over her sitting colleague Jane, and got to work on the 920s, the hallowed corner of biographies. This was where particular focus was required. The temptation to let a glance linger, until it devolved into submersion, deep in the details of another’s life, would only be kept at bay by the clock, in this instance.
“Marlowe’s here,” Jane announced in Lucy’s ear as they started their counter shift together.
Quickly noticing his constant, sleuth-like presence, the staff had baptized him Marlowe. He always either stood with one knee bent, lower legs crossed, leaning against a shelf support, or sat in one of the lone armchairs in the reference section. Whatever his favored spot of the day, his head was inevitably bowed over a book clasped in his hands or cradled in his arms.
Yet his stillness was an illusion. They had watched over that shifting of feet, an infinitesimal tilting of head, twitching of hands, grimacing; then the short, sudden exhaling through the nose, with a barely perceptible quake of the shoulders.
Soon after his first appearance, Jane had commented on his resemblance to a hired killer, disguised as a homeless drunk. However, as the weeks had gone by, Marlowe was a shadow that inspired no fear, only quiet curiosity.
Lucy could see him from her position behind the checkout counter, as usual lost to the reality around him, wrapped up in a memoir. She understood that about him at least. Otherwise he was secrecy personified.
Tapping his fingers on the counter while he waited, the man known as Marlowe suddenly broke off, furious at himself for running the risk of attracting attention. What people thought of him, was beyond his reckoning; his was the horror they thought of him at all.
“Can I help you, young man?”
The trace of irritation in Lucy’s voice startled him. He tried to control his dismay as he watched this short but fierce-looking librarian approach him from behind the counter.
“Ah, yes, sorry. Ah-hmm.”
Marlowe silently cursed his drumming fingers for potentially arousing hostilities with a desperately needed ally.
“You aren’t closed for the holidays, are you?”
He could not keep the tremor from his voice, and hated himself all the more.
“Oh, no, we’re open all next week. No worries!”
Lucy was melting in smiles. His vulnerability cued an instinctive softening.
“Normal schedule, my dear!”
Straightening up, he was re-humiliated by the realization he had been hunched up in semi-fetal position over the counter.
He also became aware of the eyes of several other staff upon him; one seated at the nearby inquiry desk, and two more behind Lucy, as they paused in their shelving duty.
Marlowe quelled panic by allowing an underground river to rise to the surface: a rush of gratefulness. Would this gathering of late middle-aged women ever understand how they presided over the sanctuary of his soul? Could this sisterhood of priestesses truly fathom his lostness, his salvation?
Lucy saw his hesitation, sensed a battle. Although Marlowe was half her age, she was abruptly reminded of her father, a man tormented by a past, by circumstances beyond his control. He had made it through a World War, only to lose his mental health, and subsequently, his first family.
Marlowe needed an escape, and Lucy would find him one.
“Here you are, love: some of the latest biographies just come in.”
Lucy brought three books from a lower shelf and placed them in front of Marlowe.
“Have a peruse, and see if any take your fancy,” she said, nodding in the direction of the reference section.
Marlowe needed no more prompting. Scooping the books off the counter, he headed for the refuge of a beloved armchair.