by Tracy Hope
a chilli hot chocolate, for a bit of spice
‘Rebecca. I’m reluctant to do this.’
I scuffed my feet, sneaker soles screeching on the linoleum. I knew what Jacob was going to say next and I knew it was rubbish. I stopped listening; Jacob’s lips moved while he, incapable of eye contact, stared at my left shoulder. I scratched there, watching his gaze twitch to the other side. He’d always reminded me of a startled rabbit in a field. If I stayed still, so would he. But if I moved suddenly, he’d bolt for the nearest hole.
He slid a piece of paper towards me, leaving a sweaty streak across the desk, and sighed.
‘This is your first formal written warning. A second written warning will result in instant dismissal.’
I signed my name with an I-don’t-care flourish and waved the pen at him. He learned early on not to stand too close when we were talking, especially if I was holding the date stamp at the time. He once spent an afternoon at the issues desk with FEB24 smudged across his cheek.
‘You know this is a load of rubbish. Mrs McIlroy has it in for me because I don’t like James Patterson.’
Jacob sighed, shifting his nervous gaze from the pen to my right earlobe. I rubbed my ear, irritated. He blinked.
‘You told her James Patterson was making her stupid.’
‘I did, yes. Along with all those other hacks she reads. But I gave her my list of suggested reading.’
‘Do you really not see how condescending that is? Rebecca, you bullied her. It can’t happen again.’
‘Are we done? I have books to shelve.’ I shoved the letter back across the desk, where it caught the air and glided to the floor. When I left the office, Jacob was crouched on the linoleum, retrieving the letter from under his chair.
I fled to the cool, dry air of the basement archives, sulking in the dark at the bottom of the stairs. I’d been as polite to Mrs McIlroy as I could have been, under the circumstances. But she insisted on reading every James Patterson and Jeffery Deaver she could get her wrinkly hands on. Maybe it was my reference to her age that offended her. Old ladies got funny about their age. I’d only said she didn’t have much time left to read the quality books, and she’d have to read fast. It was true, wasn’t it?
The room smelled of decades of ink. Every issue of the local rag was stored here in huge folders that slid smoothly into recesses against the walls, a newspaper morgue. In the middle of the room were four large reading tables. The cleaners seldom came down. This was my refuge when I wanted somewhere quiet to read, or just to avoid Jacob and Ellen, the junior librarian. I kept my own stash of books under the stairs. Melville, Hemingway, Dostoevsky: my old friends were always here. I reached for Great Expectations and held it close, running my fingertips across the cover.
The solution to my problem came to me slowly, but it was such a clever idea that I had to act on it right away. I stood, brushing dust from the back of my knee-patched work pants, and climbed up to the main floor. Jacob pecked at his computer and Ellen was nowhere to be seen. Probably shelving books, or maybe singing to the mice in the kitchenette. She carried on like a princess in a musical. No handsome princes in the library though, only Jacob the startled rabbit.
There were no customers; the village is small and this is usually the time the old ladies cluster at the tearooms to share gossip and cakes. I rolled an empty trolley out from behind the counter and hid myself among the stacks.
Where to start? Ugh, those ridiculous vampire romance novels. I swept through the aisles, digging out two dozen trashy supernatural stories and piling them onto the trolley. Next? Pseudo-erotica! Fifty shades of purple prose, lined up on the trolley next to the vampires and werewolves.
Then to Self-help: I gathered armfuls of 'non-fiction' and stowed them on the lower trolley shelf. The trolley was already almost full. I would have to make multiple trips. I heaved books along the shelves to fill the gaping holes where books had been extracted, rotten teeth yanked from the mouth. Last and with utmost pleasure, I rolled into P and removed every James Patterson book from sight.
I wheeled the trolley back towards the counter. Jacob’s head was still barely visible above his monitor. He wouldn’t show his face: a combination of embarrassment at having to reprimand me this morning and general nervousness. I sailed confidently past him and turned the corner, where I’d left the door to the archives wedged open. In no time at all I had stacked all the books neatly out of sight, under the archives stairs.
When the old ladies came in for their weekly supply of junk food for the brain, they were mildly surprised to find they’d been cut off.
‘Margaret, there aren’t any Miss Marples this week! I wonder who has them.’
‘Joan, dear, it’ll be that Mrs Higgins. You know she loves mysteries. I can’t find any Ladies’ Detective Agency books either.’
‘She probably paid to upgrade her membership. I’ll go and reserve them.’
‘I wouldn’t. It’s that young girl on the desk. Rebecca? Rachel? You know, the little thing with the brown hair. She bullied poor Ida terribly. Ida laid a complaint.’
From my hiding place behind the shelves, I heard the musical tones of someone settling in for gossip. I slipped back to my place at the counter and waited for them to approach. I was a queen presiding over the realm I had shaped, the peasants queueing to beg my favour.
This was just the beginning.
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