It had been the dust in the end. Running her fingers across the tops of the tightly packed pages, wedged together on shelf after shelf Mary had caught herself imagining those same pages slowly yellowing, remaining unturned. The words contained in each book silenced by their vessel’s repose. Never thumbed, fingered, puzzled over or marveled at again. Never working their silent magic on those receptive enough to seek it out; or even forcing their will onto those that needed forcing. The unwary student. The time filling holiday maker.
The dust settled it. Her books lay dormant and unread, impotent. She plucked one from the shelf at random – Gatsby, Fitzgerald – and ran her fingers over the cover. Daisy Buchanan. How could she deny Daisy, laughter like money, the chance to dazzle and, yes, ultimately disappoint, a whole host of other readers ? With a brief smile she remembered the French doors at their first house and how she’d insisted on floor to ceiling white drapes. John had indulged her. Each and every time there was the hint of a breeze in the summer she’d flung the doors wide in the hope of recreating a scintilla of that 20s Manhattan chic; curtains elegantly billowing into the room. He’d mixed them Cosmopolitans and they’d idled away sunny afternoons. Maida Vale had never quite been Manhattan but her horizons had been unquestionably broader for having imagined it so.
What use was Gatsby on show on her shelf ? What use Pride & Prejudice ? The very antithesis of Elizabeth Bennett to sit passively, unchallenging. A worse fate for her Austen could scarcely have considered. The Handmaid’s Tale ? No foresight in grave and salutary warnings of the future that remain unread. Kerouac travels his road unheard; Kesey skewers authority to no effect; Orwell lays bare the fundamentals of how humans organise themselves and rationalise it but no-one bears witness.
Mary, fancifully, opened Gatsby in the middle, pulling apart the two halves of the book as if they were wings; the book’s pages forming a flat V shape like a child’s drawing of a seagull in flight. Since John had died she’d had little cause to come to this room, they’d called it the study but it had become more like a vault. Over the years, progressively, they’d deposited their accumulated wisdom in print here: Atwood to Adams to Asimov to Austen. That was just the As. She lofted the book around the room, opening and closing its two halves as if to encourage it, and its long neglected shelf bound cousins, to take flight. Laughing she took the book into a deep swoop, down to a row containing Tom Wolfe, James Joyce and Douglas Adams (all John’s), before circling back up and around to volumes and volumes of Shakespeare (hers), a heavily thumbed Lord Of The Rings (his), and, finally, a childhood copy of The Wizard Of Oz. Fly my pretties, fly. Why not, thought Mary ? Why not indeed.
Working through the rest of the afternoon Mary stripped her old shelves bare, neatly stacking books onto the floor. She swore that she wouldn’t get sentimental regardless of the memories bound up in some of the pages; strangely it was hardest letting go of a set of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Not because she’d particularly enjoyed them but because they’d been all John had wanted to read towards the end. He’d scarcely been able to remember what he’d had for breakfast but had no trouble recalling in which book Sam Vimes had first appeared and he insisted on regaling her regularly with quotes from Death, his favourite character. All too soon his favourite character had visited for real. There had been no quotes. Mary had found Death a brutally silent guest.
Despite giving her slight pause the Discworld novels were stacked with the others. Tidy piles of literature, spinning tales from the past, present, and future, offering up worlds and universes to be explored. Steadily Mary began to work through the books, gently sticking a piece of lined paper onto the inside front cover of each. The paper was blank save for the same line at the top of every one: the liberated library for the lost and lonely, leave a message and please pass me on.
The next morning, early, Mary rose, dressed and packed up her trusty wheeled shopping basket with her first batch of books. She walked to the train station, pausing every few houses to deposit a book through a letter box, book and house selected entirely at random. Once at the station Mary boarded the first train to arrive – an all stations to Aldgate – and rode it down six stops. At each station she disembarked, leaving a book on her seat behind her, walked up to the next carriage and re-boarded. She finally stopped at Harrow and had a cup of tea before returning home, repeating the random distribution of the contents of her basket.
All told it took four or five days to liberate the entire library. Much of it went out locally through letter boxes, some left in places that people might stumble across – trains, coffee shops, even one or two left in the surgery after Mary had to pop in to renew a prescription. There was no grand plan or attempt to think too hard about matching text to place, just a setting free of millions upon millions of words that were otherwise held captive – scattered like seeds in the wind in the hope that some might fall on fertile ground.
Three months later, as Spring stretched into the middle of Summer, there was a soft thud as something dropped through Mary’s letter box. By the time she reached the window by the front door and glanced out the street was empty. Looking down at her doormat though her face broke into a broad smile as she recognised the book lying there, face up: The Great Gatsby. Snatching it up Mary opened the first page and there, underneath her own previously written heading, were line after line of messages. Wonderful idea, thank you for sharing. I’ve not read this since I was at school: what a lovely thought. Some much needed 20s glamour, this really brightened my day. The lost and lonely finding some solace in the book and each other.
Mary turned the page and found herself reading the opening line: In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice… Still smiling she walked from her front door through to her lounge where she threw open her French doors. There was just enough of a breeze to set a ripple flowing through her long, white curtains. Scarcely billowing and twisting like pale flags (if Mary’s memory served her correctly) but enough of a hint to conjure up those old Maida Vale days. Later she could whip up a cocktail and silently toast to John’s memory. For now she settled herself into a chair, murmured “for old time’s sake then Daisy”, and began to read.
This is the sixteenth story in my series of 42 shorts that I’m writing to raise money and awareness for Mind, the mental health charity. I’m not sure I could ever give away all of my books but the idea holds some appeal: stories only really work if they’re shared. On which note please share this if you liked it ! If you’re interested in donating to a great cause then please visit my fundraising page. https://www.justgiving.com/42shorts/