Art Pact 139

There was, if you looked at him with a generous eye, something of the lion about the man, but there was also something of the jackal, and something of the spider - and it was this last facet of the man's seeming that Wilhelmina, her eyes crusty with the gunk of fitful sleep and her mouth choked with dry saliva, saw most clearly. She looked at him, in his dark suit, and discerned in his features an emotionless calculation that might just as well have been the dry maths required of a web builder or the dark hunger of a hunter. He stood before her in the lobby of the library and stared at her, his eyes flickering only to blink, his back ramrod-straight so that he towered over her and she was able to look over the rims of her glasses without even letting them slip down her nose, as she usually did in such situations.

"I'm teddibly soddy," she said, "but we cawt led you tate a bood widout a cawd."

She frowned, partly at the audacity of the young man, partly at the realisation that there was no way to sound authoritative with a blocked nose. She knew that under the counter there was a handkerchief, but a cold calculation of her own told her that it was beyond her reach from her current position. She would have to bend down - or sit - in order to be able to get at it, and she was reluctant to do that for some reason.

"I'm afraid I don't understand," said the man in the suit. His voice had an unpleasant timbre in it, something that Wilhelmina thought would have made her walk out of a recital if she'd heard it in the tones of a musical instrument. She had a sudden urge to just let the young man go, to be done with the whole thing and mark the book down as just another unfortunate incident of shrinkage (of which there was enough from the local homeless  population, who had somehow worked out a way to bypass the library's metal scanners so that they could take books out to sell). As she was about to open her mouth to wave him on, though, another thought came to her - that he might be doing it deliberately, putting that horrid buzz into his voice in order to make her let him past, and the idea that the young man was manipulating her she found so abhorrent that she doubled her resolve, pushing the unpleasant sound to the back of her mind so that it was drowned in procedures and rules and the simple proper decencies that made a library run. The book was still on the counter in front of her, and she put one hand on top of it, claiming it as the rightful property of the library and re-affirming her position.

"I said I'm soddy," she repeated. "You cannod tate de bood."

The young man looked at her without any glimmer of comprehension, and she suddenly wondered if, despite his flawless english accent, he was in fact a foreigner. Wilhelmina's salary had not allowed her the privilege of foreign travel since the time (now a good twenty-four years ago) when her school had taken her and the rest of her class on a two-day trip to the French coast. She remembered little of that, and all of her exposure to other countries had been via the medium of television drama - in which accents, one might say with the utmost discretion, politeness, and generosity towards the esteemed actors, were treated somewhat inconsistently. It seemed odd to Wilhelmina that a foreigner might have no discernable accent which would mark him apart from the solid English men and women who were entitled (if parishioners of one of the administrative parishes encompassed by the borough) to not only use the library but to withdraw books from it.

"Are you a barishoner?" she asked, her mind having been turned to that thought. Her one concession to politic speech, she thought, would be to at least allow the man the dignity of not accusing him of being an outsider directly but to lead him towards a confession of that status by a series of more or less gentle questioning.

"I am not," he replied.

"Oh. Well, do you lib in on ob de bodough adeas?" Wilhelmina asked, indicating the ancient administrative map of the borough behind her. The map was intricately detailed within borough borders, those other boroughs in the county which abutted it being rendered in misty greys crosshatching, as if the Victorian cartographer responsible for drafting the map could hardly bring himself to believe that anywhere outside the borough existed. The young man studied the map for a few moments.

"No," he said.

"Den I'm teddibly soddy," she said, mustering as much finality as she could into her mucus-burdened voice, "bud you cannot tate dis bood oud ob de libady."

Using the hand that she'd placed atop it, she swept back the book across the polished counter and allowed it to fall into her other hand which she had positioned waiting for it. She bent down and tucked the book away into one of the sorting shelves below her counter (so rarely used that the other five sorting shelves were filled with mugs, teabags, her handbag, and other assorted kipple), and when the book had cleared her hand she took the opportunity to put a little flourish on her victory by sweeping up the handkerchief and blowing her nose as she stood up.

To her astonishment (and, it must be added, to her disappointment) the young man was gone. Wilhelmina blew her nose again, folded the cloth square up, and with a sense of accomplishment realigned all of the leaflet holders that the young man had pushed aside to put the book down. It was as she was doing this that Wilhelmina realised that although he was out of her sight, he must not yet have left the building. If he had, the geriatric bell above the door should have rung.


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