Since I had started making regular visits to the library, I would make sure my route took me through Fog Lane Park and Platt Fields. At the lake I would pause to watch the coots and moorhens among the mallards, tufted ducks and Canada geese. A lone heron stood on one leg on the shore of the island. An Egyptian goose sat plumply on a paving stone at the rim of the lake. Mentally, I gave each bird a tick.
I was pleased to be asked to contribute to the event at the library, which was being billed as a celebration, but that pleasure could only mask the pain I felt at the prospect of the library’s closure. It would be for no more than three or four years while refurbishment took place, but even if it did eventually reopen, would it be the same building I had loved all my life, its internal walls lined with Hopton Wood stone, its joinery of oak and English walnut? Would they have ‘fixed’ the unique acoustics of Great Hall, where the scrape of a chair leg on the floor would either transmit as the faintest rustle or reverberate like a thunderclap?
As a young man, I applied for writer-in-residence posts. The ceaseless stream of rejection letters did nothing to dent my confidence that one day, some grand institution would open its doors and I would be paid to sit and write all day and occasionally read at public events where respect would be measured by rows of rapt expressions and rising levels of applause.
In my spare time I would write or I would walk. I walked for miles, thinking about what I was writing, never dwelling on my condition. I was young and relatively lucky to have inherited Type 3 Usher syndrome rather than either types 1 or 2. Progressive blindness would set in, but perhaps not until early middle age. I walked by rivers and along dismantled railway lines. I entered industrial zones and crossed waste ground. I found myself drawn to disused buildings – old hospitals, abandoned factories, where the whisper of fallen leaves across a concrete apron would effectively repopulate an empty space with the ghosts of the people who had once worked there or stayed there or lived there and died there. The movement of shadows in distant corners could be explained by the passage of the sun across the dome of the sky, but there was always the suggestion of something not so easily accounted for.
Pigeons became my closest companions. Magpies, jackdaws, a murder of crows. A murmuration of starlings. Tits – blue, great, long-tailed. The jenny wren. Birds that haunted the waste lands.
In a long-abandoned factory complex hard by the shell of the former Barnes Hospital, just off the A34, I was far from the first writer to have explored the grounds since their having fallen into disuse. Tet, Solb, Stum and many others had all been there before me, leaving their tags and pieces and throw-ups on the brick walls and great rusty gas cylinders. I dragged a dirt-ingrained desk and a broken-backed chair into the centre of a large room with no ceiling where Solb had written that he was ‘INHALIN CHEMICALS’ and took out my notebook and pen. There I was, writer-in-residence of Cheadle Bleach Works.
When you stand in St Peter’s Square in front of the library and look directly at it, even a healthy eye is deceived. You are puzzled by its contradictions. The building is round, the entrance squared off, this impressive two-storey portico with its six huge columns, four round and two square. The unusual colonnade around the second and third floors. The great dome that is not a dome.
My tunnel vision meant that if I looked above the main entrance, I couldn’t see the empty plinths either side of it. A year earlier I had been able to.
I walked around the east side of the building and entered the loading bay that staff knew as Van Dock – as important a part of the library as Great Hall or Stack. I explained my business to the man at the little window, pointed to a yellow Post-it note on which his colleague had recorded my name and the number of the key I was permitted to borrow. I walked back around to the main entrance and took the stairs to the first floor, glancing at Ciniselli’s Reading Girl, a blur in white marble on the half-landing. The issue desk at the top of the stairs was empty in preparation for closure. I turned left past Local Studies, climbed to the second floor and went left again. Affixed to the wall next to a room offering Services for Visually Impaired People was a bronze bas-relief of a man’s profile. A plaque identified him as George MacDonald, poet, novelist and preacher, in gold lettering almost worn away from the fingertip searches of blind people. I passed the Chinese Library, the Training Room, the Committee Rooms. On the right side of the corridor were the study carrels that had been turned into offices. I stopped before one of these, inserted my key in the lock, closed the door behind me and breathed out.
There hadn’t been anybody following me, of course, but tunnel vision can make you paranoid.
Inside the room, there was a light switch but no light. Illumination was provided by a translucent skylight. A desk, two chairs, a large reinforced case, ten files tied with white ribbon and dated 2007. A reconstructed nineteenth-century box camera on castors that was being used by university photographers to document the library’s secret spaces – Stack, the staff-only lift, the original Language and Literature Library.
I plugged in my laptop, arranged my things – diary, room key, my paperback copy of Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library with Tom Adams’ painting of a dead girl’s foot on the cover. I hadn’t read Agatha Christie in thirty years, but the title had given me an idea for my story, a locked-room mystery called ‘The Library in the Body’. I picked up the book, which I had read with some difficulty the week before.
There was a marker on page thirteen.
‘“‘We’ve just found a body in the library,’”’ I read out loud, surprised by the sound of my voice. It had sounded as if somebody else was speaking.
The dialogue continued.
‘“‘You’ve found a what?’
“‘I know. One doesn’t believe it, does one? I mean, I thought they only happened in books.’”’
I smiled at the self-referentiality.
I turned to my next marker. A young boy asks a policeman if he likes detective stories.
‘“‘I do,’”’ the boy says – and again I was reading out loud, ‘“‘I read them all and I’ve got autographs from Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and Dickson Carr and HC Bailey.’”’
Who would have expected such postmodern trickery from Agatha Christie? In 1942. Had she perhaps read Cameron McCabe’s The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor, published five years earlier, the narrator of which is a film editor called Cameron McCabe? And how amusing that she placed herself second in the list. To put herself last would have been dishonest; second to last, coy; first, arrogant.
I opened my laptop and stared at the blank screen. I looked around at the box camera, the reinforced case, the beribboned files. I began typing. I increased the size of the type until I could read it. I typed for ten minutes, only stopping when the tolling of the hour from the Town Hall clock interrupted my concentration. I reread what I had written, speaking the words in a murmur, then selected all the text and pressed delete. I sat back and listened to the noises of the library around me. Outside the office, two women had stopped for a chat. In half-whispers they discussed a colleague. I could only catch the odd word. Maybe the progressive deafness, which was supposed to keep pace with the vision loss, was finally accelerating.
I closed the laptop and moved the table a few inches, then climbed on to the chair and stepped on to the table. I reached up and released the catch that secured the skylight. It didn’t open very far, but I could see the curved brickwork of the third floor. I want to call it the inner outer wall, or the outer inner wall, neither of which makes any sense at all unless you can see it, which I still just about could.
A clatter of wings made me cover my face. A pigeon, most likely. I retreated.
Taking the key, I left the room. I walked as far as the stairs. I wanted to go up. In my youth, I had haunted the Language and Literature Library on the fourth floor. It had been moved to the first floor within the last few years. A sign read, ‘No public access beyond this point’. I started to walk up. On the third-floor landing a window gave me what would have been a good view of the real dome, hidden inside the false one. I stepped closer to the window. Between the base of the dome and the vertical curve of the brick wall – like a daredevil motorcyclist’s wall of death – I could make out a progression of humped features: the skylights of the study carrels. Right next to one of them – maybe my own, I couldn’t tell – was a mound of unidentified material. An abandoned coat? A pile of books? A stunted buddleia?
I turned and walked back down to the second floor and then on to the first. I entered the new Language and Literature Library, located certain titles, then crossed Great Hall, raising my head to appreciate the fall of light from the oculus – or eye – at the top of the dome, and detoured to the general readers’ library, before returning to the second floor. Again, the feeling of being followed down the green-carpeted corridor.
I placed my books on the desk – short story collections by Sean O’Brien and Christopher Fowler, Thomas Ligotti, Jorge Luis Borges – and opened the laptop. The file was open and I saw with surprise that the text I had deleted remained onscreen. I reread it slowly. It still didn’t work, but the last paragraph puzzled me most of all, because I didn’t remember writing it. It didn’t fit with the rest. I deleted all the text and pressed save to make sure.
A strange sound intruded on my consciousness, a pitter-patter, like faint applause. I looked about me, but the sound was coming from above, from the skylight. It had started to rain.
I turned to the books. I read ‘The Library of Byzantium’ by Ligotti, Fowler’s ‘Dracula’s Library’, ‘The Library of Babel’ by Borges, in which I smiled at the narrator’s assertion that it’s enough for a book to be possible for it to exist. And if it exists, it can be found in the Library, which we are told represents the universe. ‘Only the impossible is excluded. For example: no book is also a stairway, though doubtless there are books that discuss and deny and demonstrate this possibility and others whose structure corresponds to that of a stairway.’ I was reminded of my unwritten locked-room mystery, ‘The Library in the Body’, in which I imagined the discovery of a body in an unknown, empty building. A post-mortem examination would reveal the existence, within the anatomy, of stairways and corridors, shelves of books, their spines forming actual vertebrae. The body would have only one eye – or oculus – which would be wide open. The other eyelid would be sunken and closed over an empty socket.
At home, I tried to work on the story, but it wouldn’t come. I had to be there. I had to be in the library. I looked out of the window. A pair of dunnocks was nesting in the garden. I had seen one of them every day for a week. I watched as it shuffled along close to the edge of the lawn. As a child I had never seen a dunnock. I tried to remember when I had seen my first one but couldn’t. That was what my blue notebooks were for.
The blue notebooks were shelved together under the window. I took one down. In 1994 I had seen kittiwakes and puffins at the Farne Islands; a year later my first peregrine falcons in the Scottish Highlands. Now, they had moved into the cities. Recent years had seen them nest on tall buildings in Manchester and Salford. I closed my eyes and pictured the pair I had seen in the Highlands, mounting a fierce attack on a predator – unidentified, possibly an eagle – that had come too close to their nest. They had killed the larger bird, which had fallen out of sight.
I put the book back and pulled out the most recent. A fieldfare in Fog Lane Park, ring-necked parakeets in the same location. A brown shrike on Staines Moor, an extraordinary sighting.
I returned the blue notebook and looked at the walls of my own library, but it was like staring down the wrong end of a telescope. I went to the shelves and ran my fingers over the spines, immediately recalling a line from another Borges story about letterless books. I found the book it was in – the story is called ‘August 25, 1983’ – and started to read. The narrator – Borges himself – approaches a hotel where he will find his older self in the act of committing suicide. ‘I felt, as on so many occasions, the relief and resignation inspired by places we know well,’ he writes. I skipped forward to find the line I wanted. The older Borges says to the younger Borges, ‘The misfortunes to which you have grown accustomed will keep on happening. You will live alone in this house. You will touch the letterless books…’ It was his way of telling him how far his blindness would have progressed.
I remembered an earlier, similar story, ‘The Other’, and reached for another volume. In this story the older Borges tells his younger self that gradual blindness is not so bad. ‘It’s like a slow summer dusk,’ he says. In the later story, he writes, ‘Blindness isn’t darkness – it’s a form of loneliness.’
I knew that yet another collection contained a third story in which the author again confronted the subject of his double – ‘Borges and I’ – but as I was reaching for my copy I noticed a tiny movement at the other side of the room.
There was a small bird on my desk and just enough light from the window to identify it as a dunnock. The pinkish legs and blue-grey face. I looked towards the window, which was shut tight, and then back at the desk – but the bird was no longer there.
In the morning, crossing Wilbraham Road, I was almost run over, my refusal to use a stick perhaps to blame.
I stumbled, shaken, into Platt Fields and sat by the lake. As my heart rate returned to normal I ticked off a Muscovy duck, a pochard, numerous mute swans and a large flock of lapwings, flickering black and white as they flapped lazily and silently over the water. My heart rate began to rise once more. Lapwing numbers had been declining for years, having been common in my youth, although never in an urban area such as this.
As I looked back while walking away from the lake I saw a large black bird soaring above all the others. It had the wingspan and wedge-shaped tail of a raven, the unmistakeable cruciform silhouette.
In St Peter’s Square, a murmuration of starlings performed acrobatics in the sky above the library. A common sight in certain parts, but only at dusk.
I collected the key, then climbed the stairs to the first floor, suspicion hardening in my mind. In Great Hall, I asked at the counter and they directed me to the medical dictionaries. A scatter of redwings, clutching their scarlet handbags, cleared a path in front of me and flew up into the glare of the oculus. Charles Bonnet syndrome, I read, had been known to occur in a small number of cases in combination with Usher syndrome. Sufferers, in good mental health but with visual impairment, would experience complex, vivid hallucinations. I allowed the book to fall to the desk, triggering explosions of sound that ricocheted around the room, as I made my way to the stairs. The green-carpeted corridor on the second floor bristled with falcons: merlin, hobby, kestrel. A red kite soared noiselessly, the angle of its forked tail changing as it steered, wings unmoving. I unlocked the door to Room 10 and closed it behind me.
I unpacked my bag. The laptop. The Body in the Library. The Borges collections and the Sean O’Brien. Wasn’t O’Brien’s ‘In the Silence Room’ a locked-room mystery? I crossed to the door and locked it. I sat down, thinking of my blue notebooks, the records I had kept over many years, most of my life. What were they worth now? The kittiwakes and puffins, the fieldfare, parakeets and brown shrike. Had I seen any of them? The peregrine falcons defending their nest. I thought of the bundle by the skylight, glimpsed from the third floor. Could it be? Was it? I remembered the bird that had attacked me, which I had presumed to be a pigeon, perhaps wrongly. I thought of the high buildings in the city, the nesting peregrines. Was the library tall enough?
I stood on the table and opened the skylight. Something – the contact with cold air, or like Borges described, in his story about suicide, a feeling of relief and resignation – made my eyes film over with water.
'The Blue Notebooks' was first published in the limited edition Issue 1 of Shadows and Tall Trees.
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