Since I've received a couple of e-mails asking if I'm OK, I thought I'd better post. This has been a really busy week (but wonderfully so) and this will continue into next week, so I haven't had a chance to blog.
So here's a wee story, in the absence of a proper blog post:
What Do I Get?
"Chocolate finger marks on the books? I don’t think so, young man." The wee boy gazes at Agnes in horror before scampering off, turning his head once to stick his tongue out. He catches up with his mum in the Romance section. She absent-mindedly ruffles his hair as she runs a finger along the shelf of books, only half-listening to his story of a wicked witch. Agnes hears the words with a pang, and touches the two dark hairs sprouting from the mole on her chin. The woman and her child pass her as they leave the library. She’s invisible as far as the mother is concerned, but the child sticks his nasty little tongue out at her again as he passes.
Agnes sighs, carefully wipes the offending chocolate from the shiny cover of the book and puts it back on the shelf. She plucks a miniscule piece of lint from the skirt of her good green-wool suit before making her way back behind the desk marked ‘Chief Librarian’. Her fortress. Twenty steps from Children’s Literature. Twenty long, torturous steps when the little devils are constantly smearing their dirty little fingers and snotty little noses over the precious books and Agnes has to rescue them.
Agnes lets out another sigh. She prefers the library when it’s shut. She always makes an excuse to stay late, wandering through the warren of dimly lit corridors and cavernous rooms, some of them filled with books that no-one has opened for a century. Except Agnes. On her rounds she makes a point of picking a dusty tome off a shelf, carefully cracking open the yellowed pages, and reading a sentence here, a paragraph there. These books need love, they need to know that someone still cares about the words inside. Besides, she’s got little to go home to these days. Jimmy speaks to her less and less and, when he does, it’s to berate or demand or argue. Agnes runs a finger across her tidy desk, feeling the grain of the old wood like a familiar comfort blanket under her touch.
As she sits herself down, smoothing her skirt carefully underneath her, she glances over at her assistant. Meadow’s desk is a pig sty – papers and books shoved to one side, the rest of the desk home to enough make-up to stock a counter at Boots. Meadow is adding an extra layer of midnight blue to eyelashes that are already ludicrously long, and caked in so much mascara that it looks as though sad black centipedes are drooping down onto her cheeks. The girl looks up, under Agnes’ accusing gaze.
“Off out with Diesel tonight. Friday...you know?” Meadow looks at Agnes, with that simpering, vacant smile she always has when talking about her latest beau. Meadow. Diesel. Whatever happened to normal names? There’s never a child in the library called Mary. Or Fred. Or even Jane or John. Agnes had got excited last week because a mother was registering her sweet-looking daughter – all long blonde curls and big blue eyes - for a library card. “No,” said the mother. “It’s not Jane, it’s J-H-A-I-N-N...and he’s a boy.”
Meadow pouts her shiny lips and adds another layer of lip-gloss. “Me and Diesel are off to that new club.” Agnes shudders at the bad grammar, but says nothing, even though she’s itching to. “You know the one I mean? Cocktails for a fiver before 10pm?” Agnes shakes her head. She’s never had a cocktail. She pictures herself perched on a stool in a crowded, noisy cocktail bar - a tad warm and sticky in her good, green-wool suit – enjoying a long drink in hues of orange and red, topped with a cherry and an umbrella. Jimmy’s never taken anywhere like that.
Meadow takes a final look at herself in the sparkly mirror she’s holding, before zipping up her designer handbag with a flourish. “Right, that’s me. I’m away. Don’t suppose you’re doing anything exciting this weekend, Aggie?”
Agnes bristles – she was christened Agnes, and there’s absolutely no reason to shorten it – but just shakes her head.
“No,” says Meadow, “I didn’t think so.” She plucks a turquoise raincoat off the back of her chair. “Right, I’m away. See ya Monday.” And, with that, she’s gone, leaving Agnes alone with a cloud of heavy perfume as the only reminder of another human presence.
Agnes potters around for a few minutes more, trying to put off the moment when she has to leave. Eventually, however, she takes a large set of keys from her drawer, fastens the buttons on her suit jacket, picks up her handbag – no designer one for her, just the same black bag she’s had for the last twenty years. Its old-fashioned clasp gives a comforting clunk as she snaps it shut. She locks the library door behind her and sets off for the bus stop. A six and a half minute walk to the bus stop, twenty minutes or so to get home.
As she reaches the stop, the number 62 draws up. Two young men in shell suits shove her out of the way as they pile onto the bus, laughing and swearing at each other. Agnes steps onto the bus and puts her money in the receptacle. As she does, she looks at the elderly driver and smiles. “Young people today,” she says, just wanting a connection, wanting a few words from a co-conspirator. But he simply shrugs and presses the buttons on the ticket machine. She takes the ticket from the slot and moves down the bus as the driver pulls roughly away from the stop.
There are no free seats, and no-one wants to catch Agnes’ eye to offer her theirs. She’ll have to stand as usual. Her feet are aching, but it’s not that far. She’s been on them all day, so another twenty minutes is neither here nor there. Two days before she can get back to the library again. Two whole days with just Jimmy. If she’s lucky. If she’s not lucky, it will be two whole days with Jimmy and one of his pals – Mr Grant, Mr Bell or Mr Johnnie Walker.
As the bus pulls up at her stop she steps off. “Thanks driver.” The driver doesn’t even turn his head, just pulls away from the kerb. Agnes walks the rest of the way to the house. As she reaches the gate, her mobile phone beeps. She stops and takes it out of her bag. A text from Jimmy. ‘Get me cigs.’ Agnes looks at the phone in her hand and sighs. She’d better do it. She turns away from the gate and trudges back up the road in the direction she came from, towards the Tesco Express on the corner.
She picks up a loaf of bread before standing in the queue for cigarettes. A woman pushes in front of her, hitting Agnes in the arm with her basket, snagging the good, green-wool suit. The woman tuts and glares at Agnes, as though it’s Agnes’ fault. “Excuse me, I was here first,” says Agnes, mildly. The woman sneers at her, then turns away, pointedly.
Agnes lets herself in the front door. “Jimmy? I’m home.”
“About bloody time, too. You get my cigarettes?” Jimmy is in the living room – unshaven, in the same stinking clothes he’s been wearing for the past four days, a full ash tray and an almost empty bottle of whisky in front of him. She was wrong. It’s Famous Grouse today.
“Aye. Here you go.” She hands him the cigarettes, which he snatches from her, without looking at her. He’s watching an episode of Jeremy Kyle on TV, gleefully immersing himself in other people’s misery, but unable to see hers.
“How was your day?” She doesn’t really want to know, but it’s automatic, after all these years.
“Shite.” His response is automatic, too. “When’s dinner?”
“About half an hour, that OK?” It will have to be. He could have got it himself but, of course, he hasn’t. He grunts, without taking his eyes off the TV.
Agnes goes into the kitchen, gets mince out of the fridge, potatoes and onions out of the cupboard. She takes the chopping board from behind the taps, and opens the drawer for a sharp knife. She starts to chop the onion. It would be nice to go out and eat – a curry, maybe. She’s never had one - Jimmy doesn’t like ‘that foreign shite’ as he calls it. It’s always mince and potatoes on a Friday.
“Bring me another bottle of whisky.”
“Just a sec,” she calls out.
“Hurry up.” He’s quite talkative tonight.
Agnes puts the knife down on the chopping board, opens the door of the cupboard under the sink and takes out a bottle of Johnnie Walker. As she stands up, Jimmy shuffles into the kitchen. “Might as well do it myself.” He snatches the bottle out of her hand and concentrates on unscrewing the lid.
Agnes turns back to chopping the onion. She places the knife carefully on the purple skin and cuts.
“And bloody hurry up with the dinner. My belly thinks my throat’s cut.”
“Really, Jimmy?” Agnes turns, the knife in her hand and slashes it across his throat. She watches as he drops to the floor, clutching at his throat. The bottle of whisky crashes to the ground and the liquid inside mixes with his blood. She steps back, as it winds its way towards her shoes. The smell of whisky is overpowering.
Agnes looks down at the knife in her hand. The cuffs of her good, green-wool suit are dark with blood and there are splotches of it on her skirt. She puts the knife back down – carefully - on the chopping board, steps over Jimmy’s body and out of the kitchen. As she walks up the stairs she takes off her jacket and starts to undo her skirt. She walks into the bathroom and puts the soiled items in the bath, before washing her hands in the sink, using her elbow to press the plunger of the soap dispenser, so as not to get blood everywhere. She’ll need to take the suit to the dry cleaner’s before she goes back to work on Monday.
She walks into the bedroom she used to share with Jimmy and opens the door of the wardrobe. She takes her good, blue-wool suit off the hanger and puts it on. She’s hungry. Perhaps she’ll go out for dinner. A curry. And then a cocktail, maybe. Yes, that would be nice.