by Sandra Arnold

I thought working in a small branch library in the dog end of town would be cool, just shelving books and checking them out and finding travel books about faraway places for myself. No more homework, no more teachers, no more pressure. Easy as. Until I met Pruneface, the librarian-in-charge-and-oh-my-God-didn’t-she-let-you-know-it. She smelled like damp clay and wore long green cardies and baggy green trousers to hide her lard arse. One day I heard Kipper Man tell her that her greenness was a sight for sore eyes on these cold gray days. Pruneface gave a curt nod. She didn’t do compliments. When she saw me smirking she arched her eyebrows and told me in her klaxon horn voice that I’d shelved books in the wrong order again and it was time I learnt the alphabet. The half dozen library users there pretended they hadn’t heard, but Kipper Man looked at me and winked. That embarrassed me even more and my face went so red that even the green face-powder I’d got from the chemist’s that promised to hide blushing didn’t work.

Newspapers were delivered to the library every morning and on freezing cold days a bunch of unemployed people and retired folk wandered in and read them at the table next to the radiator. The day the murder trial began, the library was packed with regulars wanting to look at photos of the little girl, and the house she’d lived in, and voicing their opinions on the two accused. I hadn’t realized the house I walked past every day on my way to work was THE house until I saw the photos. After that I always stopped by the house for a minute to think about the emptiness behind the closed curtains and the weed-covered patch of garden. Someone read out the report about the two eleven-year-old girls turning up at the house on the day of the child’s funeral and asking if they could see her in her coffin. It was that action that eventually led to their arrest, the paper said. Everyone stopped to listen and shake their heads and mutter about locking those little bitches up and throwing away the key or bringing back capital punishment. I don’t know why but hearing all those words made my eyes fill. I didn’t want Pruneface to see this so I turned away. Kipper Man saw and gave a knowing nod.

The murder was all people talked about for weeks, speaking in whispers to Pruneface, shaking their heads and saying things like those two girls came from good families and no one would have suspected what they were really like and what was the world coming to. Pruneface said the mothers of the two girls had been regulars at the library and personally she’d always found them a bit up themselves.

Kipper Man took no interest in the gossip. His head was always in whatever crime novel he happened to be reading. I wondered how he could be so immersed in something made up when a real-life crime had been committed on his own doorstep. I asked Pruneface where his doorstep was exactly. She said the Salvation Army sometimes took him in to give him hot food and a proper bed, but these days he spent most of his time in the library and she had no idea where he slept. I’d seen her slip him sandwiches and cups of tea from time to time when she thought no one was looking. He ate them right under the No Food Or Drink In The Library sign while Pruneface pretended not to notice.

Kipper Man didn’t exactly endear himself to me after I shelved books he’d returned and found kipper skeletons inside that he’d been using as bookmarks. When I showed Pruneface she said, with no change of expression, that they were probably what he’d rummaged from a bin to eat. She told me to clean the books and find him some proper bookmarks. When I approached him to give him the bookmarks I held my breath to avoid inhaling his stink. Pruneface noticed and said with her mouth pulled in like a cat’s bum that I should keep in mind how important it was that he was reading instead of staring into space which was all he’d done when he’d first started coming to the library. She said he liked trying to solve the fictional crimes himself before he got to the end of the books. She gave me the job of finding new crime novels and putting them on the table ready for him each day.

The murder trial finished and the paper reported that both girls were found guilty and would be sent to separate remand homes. Some of the regulars voiced their approval and others said prison was too good for them. Then it snowed for three days. Kipper Man’s books stayed untouched in the pile on the table and his chair stayed empty. Most of the regulars said it was nice having fresh air to breathe. I privately agreed with them and hoped the snow had discouraged him from walking to the library. Pruneface looked worried and rang the sallies. They found him covered in snow in the back garden of an abandoned house. They said he used to sleep inside the house until the landlord boarded it up to stop him getting in. A few days later there was a short piece in the paper under a photo of him with his family. He’d been a teacher. His wife and four daughters had died in a house fire ten years ago. Everyone in the library read the piece, but no one said a word. Not. A. Single. Word. Pruneface saw me staring at Kipper Man’s pile of books on the table. She thrust them into my hands. Her mouth was a wobbly line. In a voice like icicles cracking, she said I should make sure I shelved them in alphabetical order.

Photo by Bruno Aguirre on Unsplash