Lucy was not entirely sure what time of day it was when she dragged herself out from underneath her bed covers. A thick, golden line of sunlight striped the floor; an obscene infiltration which confirmed that it must have been at least mid-morning.
She rolled over to consult her phone and, having registered that it was ten thirty, re-settled herself amongst her pillows. Her bedroom décor was not suited to morning tranquillity but she liked it. Its definitive chaos and brashness suited her far better than the original baby-blue wall-paper and the bedding that had been ornamented with daisy chains. She preferred the intense shades of red, black and purple that now dominated her sleep, even if the walls did sometimes seem to be shouting at her. Thick-eyed and cotton-throated she cocooned herself, reflecting with mocking indulgence on how this time a few days ago she would have been mid-exam.
Here she was now, having lived to see the other side of GCSEs, and suddenly saddled with such a staggering amount of freedom that she was not quite certain how to treat it. The world was her oyster but she couldn’t get herself beyond her bedroom. She’d broken through the barrier that had kept her in the education system like a lid on a boiling saucepan and felt no older or better qualified for whatever was beyond it.
She supposed she ought to find herself a job but there weren’t many options in a village like hers. Jobs went to the kids who knew how to bake things and make small talk with the dribble of semi-permanent residents who drifted there in summer. Alternatively they went to kids thick enough or patient enough or desperate enough to tolerate long and pointless days of shelf stacking. Lucy could not cook but she wanted a supermarket job even less.
“I’m leaving, Love, please get your arse out of bed before lunchtime,” Mum called from downstairs. Her voice caught Lucy by surprise for some reason. She’d half decided that the house must be empty as she hadn’t noticed the smell of any of Mum’s organic repertoire seeping into her bedroom.
Lucy tossed under the duvet and moaned, “Mu-um!”
“I mean it,” she replied and Lucy heard her heading up the stairs to her bedroom. “You can’t just lie around all day. You have to do something.” She sounded like one of those healthy-lifestyle speakers who occasionally popped into school to patronisingly talk about ‘positive bodies and minds’ whenever they sensed that the obesity crisis was getting a little too inflamed.
“Technically I don’t have to do anything. Mum, I’ve just finished my GCSEs – give me a break!”
“When I was doing my O levels I didn’t get out much and I managed to save up quite a bit of money so when I finished I went to the cinema every day for a week.”
“Lovely anecdote,” Lucy said, dismissing her. “Why would I pay to watch a film when I could get it online for free?”
“Are you sure that’s legal?” Mum responded sharply and Lucy berated herself silently. Mum had a sensitivity towards anything that might be possibly breaking the law – which was, of course, understandable. It was as if she were a computer programed with some sort of sensory device which could pick up on wrong-doing.
Lucy had her own sensitivity to the issue of criminality but hers lacked the logic that Mum’s followed. It was formulated differently and seemed to build on the idea that as long as legality remained a minor issue she could overlook not only her father but herself. She preferred to feign ignorance and never trouble herself with what was or was not legal. That way it felt like she could never be guilty, somehow.
It was funny how the argument pressed no further; the way it was supposed to. Mum was supposed to protest more and Lucy was supposed to be unveiled as the stupid, parroting con-artist that she was. Mum was not supposed to tell herself a peaceful lie and let the question slip away like torn-up fog. Their tarnished history was an elephant in the room that stood in the corner and occasionally stepped on their toes, just infrequently enough for them to keep ignoring and lying and pretending.
Lucy forced herself to sit up in bed and forgo about sleep in order to focus on glossing over her mistake. “And anyway,” she breezed, “you can’t go to the cinema by yourself.”
“Just because you did it, does not mean it is socially acceptable, in fact, it’s more like a warning example of what isn’t,” Lucy said, succeeding in re-directing Mum’s attention with the brutality of the statement. The thing was that Mum seemed to actually find it funny even though Lucy hadn’t intended it that way.
The tension broke against the unexpected laughter and Lucy relaxed back against the headboard. They’d established an odd sort of relationship over the years – more like flat mates than family really – and Lucy had eventually decided that she liked it that way. It simplified things somehow. That was why they kept their differences in cupboards and never let anything search deep enough. They were oceans’ deep but they paddled in the shallow tide of their surfaces. Their relationship was a menial one which had been so eroded three years previously that they simply lived in a way that tried not to interfere. Mum had spent too many months attempting to steer a daughter who was set upon driving herself in the wrong direction. That approach had never worked – they were better left separate; distanced from any animosity that might have grown up between them but close enough to plagiarise each other’s sense of humour.
“Well, you could always come and join me at the café. Even with Angela helping I could always use some extra help,” Mum suggested.
“Thanks for the offer but I’m not exactly a great advert for the whole health-food thing. For one thing I’m a size 16, for another I never eat the damn stuff.” Lucy sighed before sticking her nose in the air and continuing in her finest Queens-English, “Excuse me, what dish might one be advised to sample here? Could you offer a recommendation, please?” She snorted derisively and Mum’s raised eyebrows. “And then I’d have to say: Well I think you’d enjoy our black lentil, leek and aubergine stew (if you’re wanting to vomit it back up) it’s today’s special.”
“Lucy,” Mum exclaimed in a pantomime of disgust. “I’ll have you know that there have been no reported cases of food poisoning in the entirety of my time there.”
“Ahh, but that’s no reported cases. They’re just all too terrified to admit it.”
“Shut it, you.” Mum warned, heading back down the stairs. “I’ll see you later anyway. Ideally down at the café in an hour or so.”
“Not gonna happen Mum,” Lucy called after her before pulling on her headphones. “Not in million years” She pumped My Chemical Romance up so loud that she couldn’t hear the front door slam. For some reason she hated that sound. It was painful and permanent and seemed to resonate long after whoever had departed was gone. She hated the way it seemed to jam her body shut in one blast and then echo in a way that was somehow brittle. It was like the lock of a cell door. She’d never forget that whirling soundscape at the police station or the door that lowered a final curtain over Dad’s performance.
She pushed the headphones deeper into her ears like she could crush out the memories and forced herself to sink into a semi-conscious state in which the music she swam in was all that existed.
Lucy hadn’t realised quite how much her Mum had disliked her withdrawn inactivity until she had returned from work brandishing a job at her. Lucy did not particularly want a job at the library because it seemed immensely dull. It was also appeared inexplicably as a waste of time, despite the fact that she wasted her days anyway. She liked being able to waste them on her own terms rather than on the terms of walls of words. She decided, however, that stacking library shelves did seem slightly more appealing than stacking supermarket shelves, purely because books were more appealing than tin cans.
It hadn’t been difficult at all, Mum had said when she announced that Julie-From-The-Library had come into the café for lunch and had been worrying over how she’d cope with keeping on top of things as she got too old to manage.
“You could have done it yourself, Lucy,” she’d said as she recounted how she’d offered her daughter as young and intelligent reader who’d be able to connect the library to a younger public.
Not that Lucy had great intentions of ‘community outreach’ or anything. She was simply grudgingly pleased that the library was small, the salary fairly generous, and that the job had been hers without any effort on her part. She liked books in a reluctant way. She liked them in secret because they didn’t fit with how she played herself. Sometimes she thought that the only time she couldn’t manage to formulate lies was when she had a book in hand. Perhaps a library job would therefore be good for her – catharsis maybe.
She even made the effort to leave home early enough to arrive before Julie. She’d been informed of the importance of first-impressions several times in the stuffy insignificance of school assemblies but, when it actually came to it, she found herself far more consumed by her self-presentation than normal. She had attempted to reinvent herself as she trawled through her wardrobe before ransacking Mum’s in search of some vaguely smart clothes before Mum had convinced her that, if Julie really did want to appeal to a younger generation, Lucy would be more use in plain old jeans.
“You know about the Dewey Decimal System I presume?” Julie asked, once Lucy had checked and then replenished the milk supplies in the fridge.
“Of course,” Lucy said and immediately regretted it; ‘Of course’ loosely translated as ‘someone may have once mentioned it.’ She was smart but lazy – all her teachers had paraphrased that in her school reports – and so learning the systems for book ordering had never really been something she’d motivated herself to do.
“That’s for the reference books of course – the non-fiction-”
“Of course,” Lucy interjected like an automated response machine at a checkout till. Julie did not seem to notice the forced, mechanical nature of Lucy’s speech but smiled instead.
“Yes, sorry, I should have realised – young people are so much more intelligent that they are credited to be.”
Lucy decided not to call her up on this.
“Anyway, where was I? Oh yes… that’s for reference and then you have literature here – arranged in alphabetical order of surname. Children’s literature…”
Despite the miniature scale of the village library Julie found enough of it to explain to keep her talking all morning. Rules about loans, DVDs, over-due books, library books and photocopying were showered over her. It was like being back at school only this time she was not supergluing pennies to teachers’ laptops or blocking out their voices with headphones. This time she was determined not to screw up and she found that desire to please was both unsettlingly unfamiliar and terrifyingly pressurising. Wanting to prove herself made the prospect of failing herself far greater than anyone had ever made the prospect of failing GCSEs feel.
She couldn’t really understand herself.
She didn’t care about a greying woman her Mum half-knew or about a crappy library too dated to find customers in a shrivelled village. She didn’t even really care about the spines of novels or the state of their pages. She cared only about the words and even that level of care was hard for her to admit to herself. Books were black and white; they probed her for the honesty that she usually couldn’t yield.
She was like chicken out of the freezer; frosty, flabby and un-feeling and in many ways she liked being that way. It was far simpler than being microwaved and slit-open.
“Maybe you should update these,” she suggested tentatively as she sorted Blyton from Beaman.
“It’s just, well,” Lucy faltered, “no one really reads these anymore.”
“Classics are essential.”
“Of course,” Lucy replied and leant against the book trolley. “Of course.”