The boy entered the mobile library two steps ahead of the old woman. Being first up, he turned round to help her by tugging at her coat sleeve. Her steps were slow and precise; his were light and easy. She stood in the doorway and breathed deeply.
This happened on the periphery of my vision and I became aware that I did not recognise them. Of course, I should have and would have said ‘hello’ but for old Mrs Hamilton, a regular member of the mobile for the last eight years. She was at the counter telling me about her sister’s recent hip operation and the scandalous fact that she’d had to wait in agony for four years and her suspicion that the hip was misaligned because afterwards she had one leg longer than the other. Or one leg shorter than the other, depending on how you looked at it. I briefly wondered whether this perception could indicate whether you were an optimist or a pessimist. Anyway, Mrs Hamilton was not a lady to be hushed when in full flow.
Another excuse for not saying ‘hello’ was that I was working on my own as Mary, the mobile’s library assistant, had taken a rare day off, attending a niece’s wedding. She would have been able to multi-task, as she called it, by serving Mrs Hamilton and tending to the needs of the new visitors. But I could only do what I could only do which, basically, was my excuse for not being good at something.
The old lady was still catching her breath. The boy, standing by her side, tentatively reached for the old woman’s hand. I glimpsed them moving towards the rear of the mobile, to where the children’s books were located. Even a mere glance told me that there was something very touching about the way they held hands, as though there was a bond between them which no outsider was privy to.
Mrs Hamilton moved sideways slightly to regain full eye contact with me.
“….. and if she stands straight on one leg the other leg doesn’t touch the ground.”
“Terrible,” I shook my head in sympathy. “Will she need to go back to the hospital?”
“Oh, she’ll have to. She’ll have to. I told her just this morning ….. or was it yesterday? ….. no, this morning, after I’d let Scrunchie, the cat, out for his morning prowl, I told her ….”
The little boy had let go of the woman’s hand by now as they stood in front of the row of picture books. He was running his fingers across the titles on the narrow spines while the old woman stood watch over him. She looked rather like a guardian angel.
“Sorry? What?” Certain words have a way of rudely grabbing your attention.
“Old Mrs Thompson’s husband, James you called him. Dead of a heart attack last week.” She nodded.
“Thompson? Can’t say I know her or him,” I said, hoping this lack of acquaintance would encourage her to change the subject. For some reason, I’ve never enjoyed listening to old people talking about someone dying. It’s the ready acceptance of the inevitable which I find uneasy. Rather like deciding to buy a scarf because the winter’s coming.
“He wasn’t old, mind. Seventy-seven.”
“I suppose that’s not considered old nowadays,” I agreed for the sake of politeness.
“He drank a lot and, well, you know…..” Her voice started to sound like an irritating bee buzzing in the background.
My mind started to wander towards lunchtime, twenty minutes into the future. I had my corned beef sandwiches and a good, strong cup of tea to look forward to. A bit of music, read the newspaper …..
My reverie and Mrs Hamilton’s drone was halted by the heavy entrance of her neighbour, Willie McLaughlin. He was a man who apparently could do nothing quietly for his footsteps were as thunderous as his voice. Also his coughing, frequently practised, seemed to come from the bowels of Hell. Or so Mary would say. Personally, I thought he could have found useful employment on a ship in fogbound waters.
“Morning!” he boomed. “Morning, Mrs Hamilton!” It was curious, I suppose, that he would always call her by her titled name in front of other people but, if they met on the street, he would simply call her Sally. I had learnt this from Mary who had learnt it from Mrs Hamilton herself. In a way I admired his old-fashioned attitude which reminded me of an old uncle of mine who always removed his hat when he spoke to women.
“These are coming back, if you don’t mind,” he turned his attention to me, dropping a bag of books on the counter. “And the good woman wants these two back again. What d’you call that?”
“Renewed,” I answered.
“Oh, that’s the word. I was trying to think of that word on the way over.” His voice assaulted my ears.
A quick look over his shoulder at the visitors surprised me. Obviously a voice as loud as Willie McLaughlin’s attracted attention but neither the boy nor the woman looked in our direction. Perhaps, I thought to myself, they were embarrassed by being in the confined space of the mobile with such a stentorian person. The boy now seemed to be staring at the books in front of him, oblivious to everything else. Several times I saw his hand slowly reach for a book but each time he stopped short of actually taking it off the shelf.
“Are you keeping well, Willie?” asked Mrs Hamilton. Her voice sounded like a whisper in comparison.
“Oh, can’t complain! Can’t complain! Yourself?”
I switched off mentally and concentrated on discharging Willie’s books and renewing the two for his wife. Willie usually took out non-fiction books of Irish interest and it was a struggle sometimes to find books that he hadn’t already looked at. Quite a few times we thought we had been lucky in coming across a rare and out-of-print copy of Irish history or folklore only to find that he already had a copy at home. One time, he frequently told us, he had gone to a book sale in the Newry branch and had to order a taxi home, so laden down was he with his purchases. His wife, on the other hand, was a dyed in the wool fan of Mills and Boon romances; or, as Willie referred to them, the good woman’s Meat and Bones.
“Did you find anything interesting for me?” It was always the same question from Willie.
“Nothing that you haven’t already read, Mr McLaughlin.” That was an answer that he enjoyed hearing, probably because it carried more than a hint of his intelligence and interest in books. “But how about Walter Macken?”
“Oh, he was a writer! He was a writer!”
The witty reply that was forming in my mind never left my mouth. “I’ve a couple of his books if you’d care to have a look?”
I handed him the two paperbacks and I watched as Willie seemed to weigh them in his large hands before looking at the covers.
“Brown Lord of the Mountains? Now, I have to tell you that this fine book I haven’t yet read. And it pains me to say that because I admire Walter Macken as much as O’Casey and Behan and Shaw.” He paused as he perused the cover, nodding faintly in the way that some people do when they hold something worthy in their hands.
“Yes, I’ll take this. Not the other one because I’ve read it several times and ….,” he paused to let us know there was a punchline coming, “…. a few times before that.” Mrs Hamilton tittered and I merely smiled for I didn’t want to encourage that brand of humour too much.
“And I’ll take a few more Meat and Bones for the good woman.” Mrs Hamilton tittered again or it might have been an echo of the titter that went before; I couldn’t be sure.
“Hold on, I’ve a few kept aside for her.” I bent down to look under the counter where we kept some extra books. I had to dig around for them because there were quite a collection of books there. Before I stood up again I checked to make sure that her initials, JMcL, weren’t written on the stamped page. No point in giving her something she had already read.
“There’s three here. Will that do her?”
“Ah, three will be grand, plus the ones she wants renovated.”
“Renewed,” Mrs Hamilton corrected him.
I stood up and began to scan the barcodes and stamp the return date. It was then, even without looking up, that I knew something strange had occurred.
Two minutes later Willie McLaughlin and Mrs Hamilton left together after bidding me goodbye. I watched as they ambled slowly past the mobile and down the road.
The mobile was empty now and the silence that underlined the emptiness was resounding; this was always how it felt after Willie’s echoes died away. Yet it just suddenly seemed eerily quiet. I stood there, looking at the spot where the boy and the old woman had been. Of course, what had seemed strange to me was their sudden departure; I had neither witnessed nor heard their leaving and I am sure that Willie had not heard them either, though his hearing, it had to be said, was not as sharp as his mind. If he thought as loudly as he spoke he’d probably deafened himself. Anyway, if he’d heard he would have shouted a greeting as he was wont to do. Mrs Hamilton too might have commented upon the old woman’s age or health. Yet she didn’t.
I decided to mentally catalogue the occurrence under ‘Great Unsolved Mysteries Involving a Mobile Library’ and I was about to turn my attention to the more pressing matter of lunch when something on the floor caught my eye. Just visible beneath the lower shelf, on the carpet, was a corner of white plastic. Instinct told me it was a library card.
Ignoring my stomach’s growling demands to drive to the designated lay-by for lunch, I went over to pick up the card. It must have belonged to the boy, I told myself, and in a way I felt relieved to know that he was already a library member. The card was worn or well-used, depending on one’s outlook on life, and the written name was too faded to decipher. The membership number, however, was clear.
I realised then that I was standing before the shelves where the visitors had spent some time. For no reason at all I found myself rooted there, staring blankly at the same books which had been the focus of the boy’s attention. What did he see that I couldn’t? I felt a momentary pang of sadness and wondered if that chasm between childhood and adulthood was so great that my sense of curiosity had become a boring numbness.
My stomach grumbled again and I wanted to drive off before my lunchtime faded away altogether. Yet my inner voice told me to finish the business with the card. So I typed the number into the computer program and a few seconds later I had the name of the boy: Dominik Piotrowski. He had no books out. There was a telephone number too but I reasoned that Dominik wouldn’t have arrived home so quickly. Or was that simply another excuse? I found that the card was issued by the Newry branch which, again I reasoned, must have been his local library. I dialled the number of the branch.
The phone was answered by a library assistant who identified herself as ‘Ellen or Ellie to my friends.’ There was a bit of good-natured comparison about the value of our work and the weight of our workloads and this was followed by a pause which translated as ‘get to the point.’ She had probably attended one of those ‘How to Answer the Telephone’ courses and was applying the lesson to her daily work. Anyway it proved effective because, for someone who never liked using the telephone, I felt at ease with her.
“I had a young boy and possibly his granny on the mobile this morning …”
“Well, heck, you have been busy then,” she chuckled.
“Yeah, anyway, the boy isn’t a regular on the mobile. I’ve never seen him before but he dropped his card and I’m wondering if you could let him know. I’ll have the card sent down to you if that’s alright.”
“Not a problem. What’s his name?”
“Well, first off, I think he’s Polish. It’s Dominik Piotrowski and the number …”
Over the phone I heard a sharp denial. “No!”
“Can’t be him!”
“What it says on the card.”
Her voice took on a pained edge. “No! You don’t understand! Him and his granny were just buried last weekend.”
All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of Mark Tuohy.
Published on e-Stories.org on 02.08.2010.