I Arrive First, by Emma Jane Unsworth
artwork by Laura Carter

That means it is my turn to start. I put my cloth bag down on the table and make my way over to the shelves. I walk past Poetry towards General Fiction and move along the rows, tapping a few spines as I go. I finally settle on Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities. The book is hard-backed, big and heavy. When it comes off the shelf it leaves a wide gap that the surrounding books domino-fall into. I carry it in both hands back across the room. I lost my hairbrush this morning. I turned the bathroom inside out looking for it but it was no good; itís gone forever. The best I could do was drag my fingers through my hair and scrape it back into a snarly bun. I position the book in the usual place: upside down in the top right corner of the table. Itís a tenuous joke but I know heíll get it. Weíre on the same wavelength.

I pull my netbook and papers out of my bag and stand my bottle of water on my left hand side, lining it up with the exact centre of my netbook. Then I sit back, ready. He wonít be long. Itís got to the point where I can almost sense him approaching, like a cat that knows when its ownerís car will turn into the drive.

Other students arrive. They swing through the doors and then whisper and scatter throughout the library. Some of them slip into the clinically lit catacombs that radiate from the central hub. I look up to the bright-stained dome in the roof and watch the shafts of light fall and flash over the cells of the curved perimeter wall, making everything gleam with life. A trolley of returned books waits by the lending desk and a librarian pats the handle and then pushes off in the direction of social sciences, wheeling the trolley across the room like itís a buggy with a baby in it. The trolley and the librarian disappear amongst the rows of shelves and I tap my fingers on the mousepad of my netbook and type a few words to pass the time. This is what I write:

The library is due to close for refurbishment in one week.

No sooner have I typed it than a few of the hairs on my right arm rear up off my skin and I know heís coming through the door. I donít know what gives it away to my outer senses Ė whether itís the way his feet fall or the first scent-flares of his deodorant Ė but itís like Iíve got a special kind of radar where heís concerned. He puts his bag on the desk gently, oh so gently, and then he stands there for a moment, still and softly posed in the full quiet of the library. My eyes flick on him and past him, on him and past him; past him when he looks my way and then on him again when he looks up, and I look up with him for a moment, up to the dome that is now splitting rays of sun through its antique glass, filling the air with buttery light. I see that he is wearing a green shirt and is holding a scrap of paper in his hand.

He must have seen it by now.

As he walks to the shelves he pretends to scrutinise the scrap of paper in his hand but I know this is all just part of todayís elaborate faux nonchalance. Heís thinking, considering the options, like I was just a few minutes ago. He takes his time Ė ten minutes almost Ė and I tap away on my netbook while I watch him.

I donít know where weíre all going to go.

I donít, and thatís the truth. Me and him. The books. The librarians. The birds that drip from the rough ledges outside. Should we scatter to different corners of the city; the world? Or should we meet in condensation-lined coffee shops and measure out the days in little wooden sticks?

He has a book. He brings it back. I let it sit. Him sit. I donít look for at least two minutes according to the number clock in the corner of my screen. Then I glance at the book and away, at the book and away. Itís enough. I see it. The Line of Beauty. What a charmer. He looks past me then at me then past me again. A wide, grey, ambiguous look. I touch my cheek, my forehead; I slide my fingers along my scraped back hair and needle a ratty bump beneath the surface with my nail.

Itís been going on for a month now. The first time, One Hundred Years of Solitude just sitting there in front of him, upside down, as he worked. You couldnít miss it. Well, you obviously could miss it, because plenty of people hadnít noticed it at all. From what I could tell no one else in the library was replying. I looked around at the other students working at tables, scanning for another book laid out that way. Nada. It was incredible to me that such a cry for help, for attention, for contact, was being ignored. But thatís the way it is with wavelengths and thank god for that, because if everyone was on the same wavelength you wouldnít be able to make out a thing over the din. He looked up from his work and I looked down to his trainers under the table and saw they were done up so tightly that the eyelets almost met. When I looked up again he smiled at me and I smiled back and nodded to the book and he kept smiling and there was something about the angle of his mouth that was like the angle of the book. And the table opposite was free so I sat down and thought of how best to reply. As I saw it, there was only one option, and it was sure to be on the shelf, under D, a short walk away: Rebecca. My name.

I always notice what people are reading. Whenever Iím on a bus or a train and see someone reading I strain to see what it is. Some people donít like it Ė they cover their (book) protectively with their hands, afraid of what it might reveal. Other people proudly hold their BOOKS out in front of them Ė these are usually the same books: the latest must-read, or Don DeLilloís Underworld. But you can tell so much by what someone has chosen, and Iíd be coy about it too, if I didnít mean everything the book in front of me said Ė on the outside, because thatís what counts. The insides of books donít interest me any more.

I still wonder how long he had been laying that book out, waiting for an answer. I think that will be one of my first questions, when we eventually speak. A week, thatís all we have left now.

Will we make some kind of plan, or will that ruin everything?

At quarter to five we pack up, as usual. They donít kick out until six but I think we both like to be ahead of the rush.

The next day I panic because someone is sitting at my table. This has happened before, but now that time is of the essence I canít stop myself from panicking and have to go to the Ladies and run cold water over my wrists. Heís there at his table already but I havenít had chance to see what heís put out yet.

When I come out from the toilet the first thing I do is check that the person in my seat hasnít started talking to him instead. I see with relief that she hasnít. There is nothing on the table apart from a magazine. I hope this means that she wonít be long. I linger to one side of her table, willing her away. She looks up at me and I stare hard, meaningfully, but itís no good, she doesnít understand. Sheís not on my wavelength. I step away towards the next table, but before I sit down I look over at his book. After Youíd Gone, Maggie OíFarrell. Brilliant, just brilliant. I sit down feeling calmer and take out my netbook and type a few words while Iím waiting for the girl to move.

This place will be spooky when itís empty.

The girl folds up her magazine and noisily reverses her chair. I snap my netbook shut and grab my bag and am in her seat two seconds after she has vacated it. She tuts as she walks away but I ignore her. I breathe deeply and feel as though everything is all right now. He hasnít looked up once during the changeover and I wonder whether he will swap the book or whether it is up to me to go and find one. I wait five minutes.

Like a church on a weekday.

Then he gets up and goes towards the shelves, leaving the book where it is. What does this mean? A double message? Will he use two titles to make a sentence? That would be a first.

Things have to progress I suppose.

He is back quickly. As he emerges from the shelves he almost collides with a moving trolley but swerves in a balletic move to avoid a crash and smiles at the librarian, although I canít see whether the librarian is smiling back. I smile at him but he doesnít look over and he is empty-handed. What does this mean? But as he sits down something beautiful happens Ė the bulb in the lamp on his table pops and dies. He grimaces and I can tell he is considering moving, he looks up at the dome, at the surrounding lights, and I feel the panic rising in my stomach again but then he shrugs and sits back down. This is a chance now, surely. I leap to my feet and power-walk along the shelves to S. I canít get back to my seat quick enough, canít wait for him to see how good this one is. I would run if it wasnít inappropriate to run across a library. I land in my seat and the book skids into position on the table. The Dark Room, Rachel Seiffert. Itís almost as good as when the heating hadnít caught up with the season and he put out Love in a Cold Climate. I fizzed at his wit while the word LOVE blazed off the dustjacket in my direction.

Over the next two days we take things up another notch. He arrives first both mornings. Is he implying I should start arriving earlier too, in order to maximise our time together?

Weíre running out.

On the third-to-last day he pores over a marked essay. I canít see the exact mark but I presume itís not very good because the book he has chosen is The Scarlet Letter. The mark on the essay might be in pencil, but I can read between the lines.

The following afternoon a group of schoolchildren come for a tour and they bang into tables and pull faces and shout, despite their supervisor telling them to shush. I put out Animal Farm. He replies with Atwood: Alias Grace. Heís right of course. We were all there once. I try not to let the kids rile me after that even though I am uncomfortable because I rushed my lunchtime banana.

I sense a growing heaviness inside.

On the penultimate day there is an earthquake, a minor tremor. Everything shakes and for a spilt-second afterwards there is a hum as the shelves settle and people whisper their surprise. He looks right at me then and we donít need books to say anything more.

The end is nigh.

And then it is here: the last day. I arrive to see him frantically working, surrounded by a flurry of notes. Leaves of A4 fall from the edge of his table and creep across the floor towards me like a pale tide. I stalk the shelves slowly, leadenly, without purpose. My fingers linger over Graham Greene, The End of the Affair. I canít do it. Later, in the afternoon, when just

three hours remain

he gets up and comes back with The Salt Road by Jane Johnson. Itís his most cryptic choice yet. I spend the remainder of the day racking my brain and Googling reviews. Was it a reference to tears? Was he saying he was going to be sad without me? It was so hard to decipher. Or was it intentionally meaningless, symbolic of our imminent separation? I pack up and leave first, miserable and frustrated.

Doomed.

*

A week later I am buying a coffee in a coffee shop I swore Iíd never go in but there is nowhere else to go. As I step back out onto the street I read the sandwich board outside the newsagents next door. ONE MILLION BOOKS TO BE SENT DOWN THE MINES. I buy a paper and juggle my coffee to turn the pages and find the rest of the story. It turns out that the books from the library have a strange, beautiful fate: theyíre going to be stored in salt mines the size of seven hundred football pitches, deep beneath the Cheshire plains. The perfect environment, experts say. Whoever knew there were so many in there, or so much room under Cheshire. I will have to remember to catalogue this final revelation when I find somewhere to sit.

And then I look up from the paper and see that he is making his way down the street towards the coffee shop I thought neither of us would ever go into. He walks faster outside than he did in the library and Iím surprised but also not surprised to see him and I find I donít move out of the way, I just stand there between the sandwich board and the doorway and when he gets close he has to almost stop still. He smiles a fresh smile in the solid September light. I move to one side and then back, to the other side and then back. It takes me all my courage to say something Ė to speak to him in words that arenít static and flat on their backs. I hear my voice come out into the air and the sound of it shocks us both.

ĎHow did you know about this?í

I stand there on the pavement, shaking the paper, my coffee hot in my hands, my face cracking with expectancy.




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