In the spirit of posting about things I started and didn’t finish, here’s a story I wrote a couple of years ago with the intention of writing more (that’s the bit that didn’t happen). I was quite pleased with this at the time. I hate it now.

The Accidental Librarian

There were three of them, all in a row. The one on the left was for a children’s charity and sold mainly women’s clothing; the one on the right supported poorly animals and catered more to the bric-a-brac collector; the one in the middle, in aid of famine relief, sold only books. Ben had little need of women’s clothing so he left that one somewhat reluctantly (the assistant was pretty and he was trying to kill time) and moved on to poorly animals. This place also had a rack of clothes, but mostly it contained shelves and shelves of what Ben could only describe as ‘stuff’. He spent a fascinating half-hour looking at cottage-shaped teapots, hand-painted garden gnomes and Bakelite butter dishes, and then went next door to the bookshop.  

In a couple of hours, Ben would go to the pub down the road for the free jazz. Some weeks were better than others: one time they’d had a full swing-band that took up most of the bar and people had crowded outside to hear; last week, though, it was just a bloke with an electric piano playing Scott Joplin numbers.

There were many things Ben ought to be doing in the meantime, but somehow none of them filled the strange, nagging hole he carried around with him. So, here he was, mooching around charity shops on a Saturday afternoon. 

It occurred to him to look for a small book that would fit comfortably in his pocket so he could take it to the pub right now and read it. He liked the idea of Dickens, but all they had here were chunky volumes of The old Curiosity Shop and Oliver Twist. Looking round, his eyes fell on a little paperback that was propped up on a table. It was probably a children’s book; it had a cover reminiscent of Professor Branestawm and Ben imagined it was from a similar era. The picture, coupled with the title, Tales Told by a Machine, compelled him to pick it up. It was a small, intriguing book of short stories. He took it to the counter.

The following Saturday was gloomy. It hadn’t rained yet but the sky looked like it really wanted to; this week’s walk to the pub might require an umbrella, but Ben had left that on a bus. He would leave early in an attempt to miss the rain and potter round the shops again, put off what he really ought to be doing – again. 

As he reached for his shoes, he spotted the copy of Tales Told by a Machine at the foot of the stairs. He’d read it during the week and must have put it there with the intention of moving it later. He picked it up and took it to the bookshelf, which was already a-jumble with books he hadn’t read. Some of them were his, some were his ex-wife’s. She hadn’t wanted them back and he hadn’t wanted to get rid of them. The whole house was like that: crammed with ill-fitting memories and stuff instead of life and people. He was going to the bookshop now, so maybe he should bite the bullet and take some of these with him, to make room for this new one. 

He reached into the shelf and pulled out The Sotweed Factor, a fat book that took up space. Ben had started reading it but hadn’t got very far, and that was years ago. He went to replace it with his latest acquisition, and then hesitated. He hadn’t read The Sotweed Factor, which meant he might read it one day, and he had read Tales Told by a Machine. Suddenly it seemed a little absurd to keep the books he had read and get rid of the ones he hadn’t, so he slipped Tales Told by a Machine into his coat pocket and left the other on the shelf.

‘Didn’t you buy this last week?’ The shop assistant was looking quizzically at the book Ben had handed him. Ben concurred.

‘I thought so,’ said the assistant, looking up and smiling. The silver ring wobbled in his lower lip. I remember because I thought it looked curious. What’s it like?’

Ben told him it was a set of short, surreal stories for children. The writer had been Italian and was, according to Google, famous for his humorous children’s books. 

‘Cool!’ He grinned. The ring wobbled a little more. ‘I’ll try and sneak in a read myself before it goes back on the shelf’.

Twenty minutes later Ben handed him a copy of Treasure Island and two pound coins. 

‘Did you not read this when you were a kid?’ he asked.

Ben replied that he hadn’t; that it was just the right size for his pocket and may even manage to stay there until he’d wobbled home from the pub. 

The assistant laughed, then admitted he hadn’t read it either. 

‘Let me know what you think,’ he said with another grin.

The next Saturday wasn’t a good one for Ben. Sometimes things got on top of him and, when they did, even procrastination was put on hold. He’d read Treasure Island, enjoyed it and had hoped to take it back to the shop and share his experience with the assistant. But that wasn’t going to happen today. He spent most of the weekend in bed, trying desperately to shake off something he couldn’t comprehend. 

The following Saturday was much better. Even the housework got a look-in: Ben spent the morning cleaning the shower-curtain and doing the previous week’s dishes. Then he picked up his book and headed out.

‘You should join a library, it would be a lot cheaper,’ joked Matt, the shop assistant, when they’d finished discussing Treasure Island and Ben went to pay for another novel. 

Ben said he doubted it, knowing how good he was at accruing library fines.

Matt smiled. ‘I’ve started to think of this as a sort of accidental library,’ he said, gesturing into the shop. ‘I wasn’t looking to work in a bookshop particularly, I just wanted something to get me out of the house, but I like the random nature of curating books that are donated by people rather than chosen by us.’

Ben took his latest purchase to the pub and read a bit before the music started. 

He finished the book by the end of the week and returned it to the shop on Saturday. The next book he bought was on Matt’s recommendation. ‘Ragtime. I know you like jazz.’ He read it and told Matt about it the following week, before buying another.

One Thursday, Ben had a particularly bad wobble. He’d been fragile all week and trying to hide it, but something snapped in his head while he was out with friends and his facade started to crumble. He made his excuses before anyone noticed and went home to bed, where he stayed all through the next day. He didn’t sleep, there was too much energy rushing around the room, draining away hope and filling his head with self-loathing recriminations at a rate of knots that sucked the life out of him. It wasn’t something he could describe, so he didn’t try to: when it happened, he just hunkered down and hoped it would lessen enough for him to face the world once more.   

Then, on Friday evening, without warning, something in his head snapped again. All of a sudden, he slapped himself round the face, pushed himself out of bed and went to the bathroom. He filled the basin with cold water and plunged his head into it. He wiggled his face, withdrew from the basin, gasped deeply and rubbed himself dry with a towel. Then he took a flattened cardboard box from under the bed, unflattened it and went downstairs. By midnight his bookshelf was tidy, the surfaces were dusted and the carpet hoovered, the box was brim-full of things for the charity shops and his living-room was a place he wanted to live in. He smiled to himself, which surprised him. It may not last but he felt good right now. He went back to bed and slept.

The next day was sunny. It was less sunny than yesterday but Ben’s curtains had been closed so he hadn’t seen it. They were open now, and Ben was sitting on his bed, reading. Last week he and Matt had agreed to read the same book and compare notes, so he was finishing it now. It would be the second time they’d done this: last time it was Gravity’s Rainbow, which had taken them ages to read and had left them both a little nonplussed. They’d learned their lesson and chosen something much shorter and simpler this time. 

After lunch, Ben picked up his book and phoned for a taxi. The driver helped him drag the hefty cardboard box from his living-room and heave it into the boot of the car, and back out again when they arrived at the shops. The poorly-animals charity happily accepted a couple of trinket boxes, an old CD rack, some candlesticks and an ugly, hand-painted vase that Ben had acquired somehow but everyone denied giving him. Doubtless they would also have taken the small box of costume jewellery that Ben had found stuck behind the bookcase, but he took that to the children’s charity instead, on the off-chance that the pretty assistant would be there. She wasn’t. 

The rest of the items in the box were books so he took them next door. 

There was no sign of Matt. He wasn’t at the till as usual and he wasn’t organising the shelves, which he did sometimes when the shop was quiet. Ben asked the lady at the counter. She told him that Matt was the full-time carer for his sister and the respite arrangements had changed, so he was no longer free at weekends. This news struck Ben harder than he would have imagined. Their Saturday afternoon chats about books had become almost routine and he looked forward to them; and what about Matt? This job, Ben realised now, was Matt’s weekly ticket out of house and his one opportunity to mix with other people; and this place was his library, his sanctuary. He asked the assistant if she was in touch with Matt and would pass on a message. She replied yes to both questions, so Ben went to the shelf, found a novel that he owned already (this took a while) and brought it back to the counter. He tore a sheet from a pad in his pocket and scribbled on it his phone number and the short message, ‘Next book attached’. He paid for the book, tucked the note inside and handed it to the assistant. 

The short walk to the pub took him past the local library. He glanced up at it. A sign in the window was asking for volunteers. Ben stopped. He looked towards the pub and then at his watch. He paused for a moment, then he opened the library door and walked in. 

The end