IN THE LIBRARY by Mary Mae Lewis
Shielding her eyes from the summer sun, Marjory looked up at the imposing, Edwardian, three-story, redbrick building in awe. Creeping up the granite steps, hauling a big bag she reached the main entrance to the library, a little out of breath. She paused before struggling to push the heavy oak door, with its polished brass handles, open.
The cool air inside stunned her like a dunk in a cold bath. She scuttled across the painted terracotta Minton tiles, her tiny footsteps echoing around the great hallway then dissipating into nothing up the broad, winding, staircase. She stopped again at the next set of double doors and prayed for courage.
To her right, in the reading-room, cloth-capped working-class men and waist-coated middle-class men stood silently, at opposite sides of the chamber. One group perusing the broadsheets, propped up on dark wood contraptions, the others the tabloids.
The four-foot-eight girl, savouring a moment of solitude, looked up to admire the stained-glass door panels, behind which was the library reception; she cringed with fear and inferiority. This was the home of the mighty intellectuals
Taking a deep breath, she pushed hard, propelled herself forward and finally entered the lofty space with floor to ceiling rows of books. With fortitude, she hauled the well-worn leatherette bag, onto the check-in counter. The thud caused a few heads to swivel and beady eyes to register disapproval, but no one spoke and the eight-year-old was left to wait. The polished mahogany surface, on which the bag stood, was level with her nose. Her body rigid, and arms hanging limply by her sides, she turned her head slowly; her eyes scanned from left to right like a searchlight.
A middle-aged librarian was straining at the top of a ladder to replace a book on the top shelf. The black lines of her nylon stockings ran perfectly straight up her legs from her Achilles heals to disappear under her neat grey pencil skirt, the hem of which sat one inch below her knees. A man in a trilby, and belted up Mackintosh, stood watching her. His moustache twitched every time the woman stretched up and revealed more of her legs. Marjory felt sick: her blood rebelled as she recognised the face; Mr Rhede! Her cheeks reddening, and her neck tingling, she remembered, how he had lured her to his house and sat her on his knee, in his parlour, in return for a tube of Smarties. She recalled the man’s cold thin white hand touching her thigh and felt her feet weld to the floor in anger and humiliation. She heaved at the thought of his long lean fingers and unblemished nails.
“He’s nowt but a poncy pen-pusher. Stay clear of ‘im and the likes of ‘im”, Marjory’s father warned after she had confided in her mother, who, of course, had told her husband.
But Marjory hadn’t revealed all. The secret inside poisoned her reasoning, crippled her self-esteem and, in her own mind, had condemned her to the gutter. Her heart thumped and swirled around inside her chest like a wild bird trying to escape from a cage. She dribbled in her pants then clenched her buttocks and crossed her legs to stop the flow.
Only when she sneezed did she attract attention.
“Yes?” An older librarian, asked, thrusting her ample bosom over the counter, and shoving her wrinkly face into Marjory’s.
Marjory leaned back to regain some personal space and indicated to the bag of books, thinking, I wouldn’t trust her with my guinea pig!
Miss Ugly Sister, (Marjory’s name for her) lifted the six library books out of the bag one at a time as if she were removing dead rats from a baby’s cot. As she placed each one on the counter the wire-haired woman winced and wiped her hands on her pleated plaid skirt before extracting the next one. Finally, she took the bag turned it upside down and shook the remaining contents over the wastepaper basket. Marjory blushed again, as bits of soil, carrot and cauliflower, remnants of the previous day’s greengrocery shopping, she had done, for her family, at the market across the road, fell into the rubbish bin. Her heart froze. Riveted to the spot she felt like a pillar of salt, struck dumb like Lotte in the Bible.
Her thoughts were in turmoil, struggling in her head as wildly as a turtle tangled up in a fisherman’s net and fighting for its life; she didn’t move, not until, ten-year-old Melinda Cartwright swept past and landed her a punch in the middle of her back sending a sharp pain up her spine.
“You smell!” this girl, from Marjory’s primary school, hissed.
Marjory lifted her arms to her face as the blonde bright-eyed girl, pigtails swinging provocatively down her back, slipped into the children’s room of the library, to the right.
I don’t smell, Marjory spoke the words quietly to herself; she wondered if Mr Rhede had taken advantage of Melinda.
Marjory sniffed her skin again to reassure herself she was not dirty; the scent of Life Buoy toilet soap, used that morning was clearly evident. But then she thought of her clothes and the fact she had just wet her knickers. She only had three sets of garments: one on, one in the wash and one ready for use. Today was Saturday, her clean set of clothes wouldn’t be issued till Sunday morning, for Sunday school and the start of the school week. She’d have to dry her pants out, somehow, and manage till then. Marjory looked down at herself and recoiled yet again embarrassed that her flimsy cardigan was so old the wool had bobbled. Two buttons, out of five were missing and she had had it so long it was much too small for her now. How she envied Melinda with her polished soft leather shoes, hand crochets boleros, velvet dresses and pink ribbons. She was teachers’ pet. She rang the school bell and was ‘well-read’. She won all the school competitions for writing, poetry, and short stories. A woman in the making to be sure. She’ll go far, they said. She’ll fetch ducks of water. Marjory writhed inside with self-pity, but she didn’t show it.
“Yes,” the librarian asked again slapping her hand on the counter to regain Marjory’s attention.
“Two Romance, two Historical novels and two Romance,” Marjory said, adding, “For my mother.” It was one of the girl’s errands to go to Library, once every three weeks, to fetch her mum’s reading material.
My mum definitely doesn’t smell, the child thought as the Librarian was busy choosing six books as requested. Marjory envisaged her mother dabbing herself behind her ears with June Perfume from a tiny bottle about two inches square. It was so precious you had to unscrew a spherical, pea green, top and peel back a black rubber stopper to get at it! Mother gave Marjory a dab on Sundays before Church and on special occasions like birthdays and Christmas. Nelly also used Imperial Leather talcum powder and Pears soap.
Marjory concentrated on the books being stamped brutally, by the curmudgeonly library assistant, and cringed, but choked back a tear when finally, the paperbacks were shoved carelessly into the scruffy bag.
“There you are.” The harridan snapped as she pushed the bag towards Marjory over the counter. The pungent smell of the unkind woman’s body odour, a musty smell mixed with sweat, made Marjory wretch. She grabbed the bag, and with a hand over her mouth, she shot back through the two sets of doors, into the waiting fresh air as if she was getting out of a building on fire!
She raced along The Boulevard, turned left, passed Little Park and headed home. Anxious to get her reward for the week’s chores she ran as fast as she could up her street and only stopped when she reached the back gate of her home.
Singing Oh What a Beautiful Morning she let herself into the Victorian workers’ terraced house and put the bag on the kitchen table then waited for her mother to come downstairs with her purse and dig out a sixpence.
If mother was quick she would still have time to go to the pictures, Chums’ Club, at Barber’s Palace cinema, or if not she would go swimming the next day, with her cousins, at the Public Baths, big decisions for a little girl in the 1950’s from Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent.
Marjory’s phobia for the library stopped her from ever enjoying the delights of the books in the children’s section for herself but she made do with reading what books she had access to at school, comics handed down to her from cousins and second-hand books from her father’s employer’s daughters. As she grew older she read the local daily paper, The Sentinel and the Sunday newspaper, News of the World, her mother bought, but she never went to the town’s library again once she was 13, when she got a Saturday job stacking shelves in a supermarket. She didn’t need the money from her mother, for doing errands, anymore. However, her acute dislike of that library impacted on her when she went to the grammar school and she avoided the school library too, as best she could. The feelings even persisted when she went to teacher training college but somehow, she got by; she bought the books she needed or asked others to go and get books out for her.
It was a great moment when computers came into common use and anything anyone wanted to know was there at the click of a button; Marjory never stopped reading. When she got a kindle, she thought she was in heaven.
Marjory hasn’t lived in Tunstall for over fifty years, but she’s heard that the library is being moved to the Town Hall. What will become of the old one, well no one knows yet but whatever it may become it doesn’t matter to Marjory. She’s finally got over her fears and has even installed a library in her own house!