One

 

WEDNESDAYS WERE always the quietest day in the library.

I’d never really worked out why that was, but I was grateful for a day in the middle of the week where I could catch up with the multitude of admin tasks, which were an unavoidable part of the head librarian’s job. I’d long ago developed a loathing for working in an enclosed space, so, upstairs, my office was an open area at the back of the mezzanine floor.

I was trawling through a small backlog of e-mails when the sound of footsteps came from the spiral staircase to my left. A concerned-looking Daisy strode purposefully across the floor in my direction. Daisy was my senior assistant and the most able librarian we had. Slightly older than my forty-eight years, this all-too-serious woman still lived at home with her elderly parents. The library and her garden were probably the major loves of her life. We shared a passion for books, but with one major difference where the library was concerned: I believed in this as a place for people to interact with books in every possible way. Daisy, on the other hand, saw the library as a repository for books in ordered rows on shelves. For her, the people were something of a nuisance. People came into the library and took books off the shelves; even worse, they took them home to read. Now it was clear that something had ruffled Daisy’s carefully preened feathers, or more likely someone had.

Leaning over my desk to whisper in her best conspiratorial tone, she declared, “He’s in again.”

Now clearly I was supposed to know who he was, and was expected to do something about it. I tried to mirror her anxiety in order to show some empathy without laughing out loud. “Who’s in, Daisy?”

“That boy. That young good-for-nothing that I told you about last week.”

Some vague memories surfaced. I had returned from a morning off, to be confronted by Daisy in a high state of anxiety. It seemed that some young hooligan had come into the library and spent the whole morning wandering around, looking at the books, and had even touched a good many of them! Eventually he left without checking any books out, but he was clearly up to no good in the eyes of the ever-vigilant assistant librarian.

“Oh yes. That’s right, you did tell me about him. Is it the same lad?”

“Yes, definitely. He’s wearing one of those hoodie things. Look, I’ll show you, but you need to do something, Ben.”

That settled it. If said hoodlum was wearing a hoodie, then he must be at the very least a serial killer or even a bomb-wielding terrorist. I rose from my chair and followed Daisy to the rail overlooking the library floor below. After a quick scan of the room, Daisy nudged me in the ribs and pointed below. “There he is.”

I looked in the direction she was pointing and spotted the lad off to the right in front of the bookshelves in the natural history section. Up to this point, my whole approach had been about humoring my anxious and conspiratorial assistant. Now my attitude changed to one of genuine interest. During our previous discourse, I suppose I’d created a snappy image of some scruffy youth with long untidy dark hair and shabby clothes. He should no doubt be hunched over a physics book, trying to memorize the inner workings of an atomic bomb.

Instead, to my surprise, a very well-groomed young man with short, neatly trimmed blond hair was studying the books. He wore immaculately clean, well-fitting clothes. Very well fitting, in fact, since from our current vantage point, he appeared to be a very fit and good-looking lad. As we watched, our intruder selected a book from the shelf before him and turned toward the tables in the center of the room. It was hard to see any details from our elevated viewpoint, but he appeared to be very fresh-faced and aged in his late teens or early twenties. The hooded sweatshirt made it hard to see his upper body shape, but as he walked across the floor, well-muscled legs filled his jeans.

The lad pulled out a chair and laid the book on the table carefully, before settling himself down to read. Just by the way he placed the book and the slight pause before he opened it told me so much about him. This was a guy who respected books. His handling of the volume was almost reverent. We’ve grown used to teenagers treating their iPads or phones with reverence these days, not books.

“Well?” Daisy’s sharp prompting caught my attention. “You need to do something, Ben.”

“If I ask him to take his hoodie off, would that make you feel better?”

“Now you’re being silly.” Daisy was clearly not going to be pacified on this matter. “You mark my words. He’s up to something.”

“Yes, he’s reading a book, but so is just about everyone else in here. I’m not sure he’s actually doing anything wrong.”

I got one of her despairing looks. “Well, when he does, I hope you will remember that I told you so.”

Daisy gathered her cardigan around herself and strode off toward the staircase. I turned back to lean on the railing and admire our apparent adversary. Once more I was drawn to the careful way that he turned each page of his chosen book. It didn’t appear that he was actually reading much. Judging by the frequency of the page turning, it seemed as though he was just scanning the pictures, of which there were many.

Without warning, the boy turned and looked straight at me. For a moment I was embarrassed, but then he turned away just as quickly. Of course he’d not looked at me but at the large library clock, which was fixed to the front of the balcony close to where I was standing.

For a clichéd moment, time stood still, and my gaze was locked onto his upturned face. He was truly beautiful. His features were angular in a very classical way, handsome and open. I could not make out the color of his eyes from this distance, but they were clear and bright.

The moment passed and it appeared that the clock could cut short his visit. The book was carefully closed, but before he stood up, the boy took out his smartphone and took a close picture of the front cover. The phone was returned to its pocket, and he carefully rose and picked up the book. It was solemnly returned to its place on the shelf, and he slowly ran his fingers along the spines of all of its neighbors before turning to walk out. As he left I could not help but admire the rear view of the well-formed boy and made a promise to myself that I would look for him in future.

In fact I hardly had to wait long at all. Two days later I was taking my turn at the front desk when our mysterious visitor returned. The lad cycled onto the forecourt and parked his sturdy-looking road bike in the bicycle stand. I got to admire his shape again as he walked up the few steps to the glass front door.

“Good morning.” It was my habit to greet everyone who came in, and I was always amused at the variety of reactions this generated. This time it was a simple one-word response.

“Hello.”

This one word was accompanied by a slight smile, but that was enough to make my day. At first he appeared to be heading straight in, but as if suddenly remembering something, he stopped and turned back to me.

“If I want to borrow books from here, do I have to get a library card or something?”

So Daisy was right—he’d not been taking any books out yet.

“Yes, you do. So long as you can prove that you live or work in the area, we can give you a card straightaway.”

Now he looked confused and fiddled with the zipper on the infamous sweatshirt. There was a pained look on his face. His sad eyes were a startling green color, and he looked even more handsome close up than he had from the balcony. There was something about this little-boy-lost look that made me want to reach out to pat him and just say everything would be okay. Now I needed to be professional. “Do you live here?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Yes, but I’ve only moved here recently to live with my nan, so I’ve not got anything with my name and address on it yet.”

I’m not sure why, but I then asked his age.

“I’m nineteen. Is that a problem?”

“No, not at all. We’re not in the business of turning readers away, so let’s sort something out. I’m Ben by the way, and you are?”

“I’m Jason, Jason Barnes.”

“Okay, Jason, I’m the head librarian here. Are you just visiting your nan for a while?”

“I’m her carer now, so I’m living down here.”

Why did everything he said almost sound defensive? “Ah, okay. Do you know if your nan is a member here?”

“She told me all about the place so, yeah, maybe she is.”

“What’s her name? I’ll see if she’s on the system.”

“She’s Alice Barnes.”

I did a search on the computer and quickly found the name. “What’s your address, Jason?”

“Number six, Oak Grove.” The information matched and that was good enough for me.

“Got it, that’s great. Just for security have you got anything with your name on it at all?”

Jason reached for his back pocket. “Only my bank card, will that do?”

“That’s perfect.” Okay, it wasn’t the most secure check, but I was a librarian, not a bank manager. The name on his card was sufficient for me. “Do you want to sign up for a card now?”

A strange expression lined his face, almost a look of panic. “Do I need to fill in a form or something?”

“Yes, because we need a signature, but actually to save you time, I can fill in all the relevant bits on the screen and just print a copy for you to sign.”

“Really? That would be great. Thank you.”

Why did he appear so relieved? Was Jason just another lazy teenager?

“No problem. I just need a few details from you, and I can copy the rest over from your nan’s form.”

I felt almost guilty as I collected Jason’s date of birth and his mobile phone number. I printed off a copy of the form and gave it to him to sign. As he passed it back, I noticed that he had signed the very bottom line, which was the space for parents or guardians to countersign, but I decided it would do anyway.

“I can actually print your card off now,” I said. “If you ask on your way out, it will be here waiting for you.”

It was like speaking to a different person now. I actually got a smile, and he visibly relaxed. Maybe Jason was just nervous or shy around people older than him.

“That’s great. Thanks, Mr.…” He paused and so I reminded him.

“It’s Ben. Just Ben.”

“Thanks for your help, Ben.” Jason turned and hurried off into the library while my gaze lingered over his fine behind and strong legs.

Daisy returned from her coffee break just as I was taking the plastic library card out of the printer. “Have we got a new member, then?”

“Yes, we have, but I’m not sure how welcoming you will be.” A look of concern clouded her face.

“Why, who is it?”

I leaned over the desk and mimicked her conspiratorial whisper. “It’s that boy. The hoodie lad.”

Daisy visibly stiffened at the mention of her antagonist. “That’s not funny, Ben. He’ll be trouble.”

“Daisy, I hope he becomes a regular visitor, and I hope he brings all his mates too. We could do with a few teenagers around here to liven the place up. If we don’t find a way to get them in, then reading books is going to become a lost art, and libraries like this will be no better than museums.”

We had already tried to increase our appeal to younger users by stocking CDs and DVDs for loan. The introduction of computers with Internet connection and the availability of free Wi-Fi had helped, but we still needed to do more, especially on the reading front. I’d allocated a chunk of the book-buying budget to increase our stock of current YA novels, but we still needed to get young people reading them.

“But it will be just like the high street, with groups of young layabouts hanging around taking drugs and heaven knows what else.” Poor Daisy really was struggling with the concept of having teenagers anywhere near her precious books, so I tried to soothe her wild concerns.

“Don’t worry, I’m sure it will be fine.”

Daisy joined me behind the front desk. “I’ll take over here. You’d better go and get on with something important, but keep your eye on him, that’s all.”

Clearly I was not responding as I was supposed to, and I was now being dismissed. “Thanks, Daisy. Actually I feel like doing something a bit more mundane, so I’ll take the returns trolley and stack some books.”

Indeed this might appear like a mundane task, but it gave me an excuse to tour the stacks and check that all was well. Any time spent among the books was also a welcome distraction from admin jobs. I also liked to greet our regulars when I saw them around the place, and I knew a good many of them by name.

As I rounded the stack into the second bay of the fiction section, there was our young hoodlum Jason, sitting cross-legged on the floor, with an open book in his lap. He didn’t appear to be reading, unless he was a speed reader. He was methodically turning the pages over, one after another. Jason looked up and almost seemed on the verge of tears.

“Hello.” I wasn’t sure how to interact with him yet. “It’s Jason, isn’t it?” I tried not to sound too familiar.

“Yes, that’s right.” He closed the book and started to get up.

“I didn’t mean to disturb you. No need to move on my account.”

“That’s okay. This book is boring anyway.” Jason was now standing there looking down at the cover of the book, as if unsure what he was doing.

“What kind of thing do you like to read?”

Jason looked up, and once again his fresh face and beautiful bright eyes stilled me. He seemed to be thinking about how to respond.

“I just like good stories, but I like reading information too, like science or nature.”

“Well that gives you plenty to choose from, then.”

Again he glanced at the book in his hands. “I guess so.”

Jason turned to the shelves, and as he moved to replace the book, I saw there was one on the shelf resting over on its spine, apparently marking its position. As if to confirm this, Jason slid his book in beside the marker book, and then he lifted it back into its correct position.

“If you ever need any help or want suggestions for things to read, just ask. I’m always happy to help.”

“Okay, thanks.” Jason flashed his amazing smile and looked at his watch. “I need to get going. See you later.” Jason looked at me as if he was trying to remember something.

“It’s Ben.” I saw him smile at his own memory lapse. “Don’t forget to collect your library card from Daisy at the front desk.”

“Thanks, Ben. Bye for now.”

I watched as our handsome hoodlum strode across the room to leave, and with a sigh of great satisfaction, I went back to replacing books on shelves.