In the absence of further blogging inspiration, here’s part 1 of a short story (loosely) inspired by the character of the White Rabbit from a writing group prompt.
“Could we divert a library assistant to shelve these returns while I’m at the book meeting? Celia is familiar with their classification.”
“I expect it’s time I got to grips with it,” I said. “Celia’s writing tickets.”
“Oh dear.” The music librarian regarded me as if doubting my vinyl-shelving capabilities. I wondered where he bought his waistcoats; today’s was a subdued paisley affair. Above it, his nose twitched, and I noticed for the first time a bruise under one pink-rimmed eye.
“Mr Warren, is that a black eye?” I joked, thinking it a smudge of grime from the book-hoist or the basement. He turned his head away, muttering something about a cupboard door, before consulting his watch.
“Is that the time? I must be off. I’ll be late. ”
Beneath prematurely white hair, he had flushed rose-red. Pulling on gloves, he bustled out in a flurry of last-minute reminders.
A moment later, he was back. I handed him his copy of The Bookseller, marked up with the titles to order for the music library bookshelves.
Mr Warren was the Borough’s music librarian, in the days when public libraries still loaned out vinyl long-playing records.
Back then, I was fresh from library school, working my year of approved service before qualifying as an Associate of the Library Association. I was the last borough-sponsored trainee. By the seventies, public library cuts had begun.
I’d been a last-minute recruit to Library School when the Borough’s proposed trainee failed his A-Level exams. On my return from college, I was passed around departments until a vacancy arose in the borough’s second largest branch where the music library was located. Being third in the lending library’s pecking order – after the branch librarian and his deputy – I was timetabled into the music library on Wednesday mornings to cover for Mr Warren’s absence at book selection meetings.
After several attempts at filing the returned albums, I co-opted Celia from the workroom and tried not to notice when she pulled out some I had already filed.
“Classification wasn’t my strongest subject,” I said, not mentioning that I hadn’t turned up for half the lectures.
“He catalogues the records and music scores himself,” she said. “I process them when they arrive so I’ve got used to his system.”
I left Celia in charge while I went for my tea break.
Sharon and Colin, the youngest of the library assistants, were still in the staff room with Mrs Roper, a seasoned part-timer who wielded the kettle.
“Hello, dear. How are you finding the record library?”
“A world unto itself,” I said. “Celia’s sorting me out. Otherwise Mr Warren will never trust me with his LPs again.”
Sharon mimicked alarm and wrung her hands. “Oh dear, oh dear! What’s Brubeck doing in with Beethoven?”
Colin sniggered. “You don’t want to know, young Sharon.”
Mrs Roper ignored them. “Tea, dear?”
“Yes, please. I feel guilty for making him late with all my questions.”
“He’s always worried he’ll be late, but he never is. The world will end before that man is late for anything.”
Sharon said, “It must be all that worrying that turned his hair white.”
He did seem young to have white hair but, at twenty-two, I was no judge. Other librarians were older than me by default, and Mr Warren’s mobile face was difficult to put an age to.
“Unless our Bobby’s been at the peroxide,” said Colin. I tried to remember if I’d seen signs of dark roots among the white.
The nickname Bobby suited the way he bobbed from one task to another, but it was always Mr Warren to his face. Nobody called him Robert. He rarely frequented the staff room himself, always having some business to attend to when relieved for his breaks.
Sharon said, “Maybe he had a shock that turned his hair white.”
“Oo!” squealed Colin, his eyes wide as if goosed, and Sharon dissolved into giggles.
“Come on, sunshine.” Mrs R pointed at the clock. “We’re on the counter.” Her gaze shifted to Sharon. “And you, milady, are due shelving.”
That weekend was Mr Warren’s Saturday off. On the Monday I went to relieve him for a tea break as Mrs Roper brought in the newly written borrowers’ tickets. One new library member shared the name of a film star.
He said, “She’s a long way from Hollywood,” and Mrs R said, “Go on with you,” and nudged his arm. His wince was accompanied by a sharp intake of breath.
“Oh, I am sorry, Mr Warren. Are you alright?”
His face almost matched his hair, but he managed a smile of reassurance before scurrying to the gents.
It was the Monday following that he didn’t turn up for work. We knew by nine o’clock that something must be wrong; Mr Warren was never late. The phone rang in the branch librarian’s office. Soon after, the deputy was called into the office. Nobody was surprised when she came out to amend the timetable.