Lucy belonged, she decided as she observed her reflection, to a repulsive brand of human beings. She spent her life floundering in mess she’d created but not bothered to tidy away. She was ugly but without the conviction or strength of mind to try to alter this. She would complain and then wonder how she had the audacity to do so when she’d never attempted to change the way things were.
Ugly, she thought, but too settled in her ugliness to try buying what her Mum would call ‘nice clothes’ or to attempt all that skin care stuff or to eat health food or even to join the ridiculous Zumba craze that female society had recently been swallowed up by. She had fallen and lodged herself into her lifestyle like a sedimentary rock and this angered her. Mum had moved on – carried herself on – while she’d pasted herself into place within a certain picture frame that dictated who she was.
“Lucy!” her Mum called from downstairs. “Are you keeping track of the time?”
The intervention irritated her, more because she didn’t want to need it than because it was unnecessary. She was furious with herself for allowing her mind to slide away from work and the library.
“I don’t need you to help me,” she called back, stung and brusque. Stung because Mum didn’t think she was capable of approaching her responsibly, brusque because Mum was right. Re-directing her self-focused anger at Mum made the rage a lot more satisfying. She wanted to accuse Mum, wanted it to be Mum’s fault, wanted the interjection to be as unnecessary as she pretended that it was.
“Lucy, it is nine thirty right now – even if you run you can’t be at the library by nine-thirty.”
“I’m not running anywhere,” she lied as she dashed and skidded down the stairs with momentary athleticism.
Mum sighed and drummed her fingers on the kitchen sideboard.
“Then you’ll be really late and Julie won’t want you.” Her mother's words blasted into her with the numb and senseless aggression of a machine gun. They seemed to trip her up as she dodged them; they were like shoes that wouldn’t fit onto feet or keys that got forgotten or magazines left lying on the floor.
Julie won’t want you.
“Oh yeah, that’s right isn’t it, because no one will ever want me?”
“That is an attention-seeking lie and you know it,” her Mum said coldly. “Now stop blaming other people and don’t make yourself any later. I got you this job – which, may I just say, is certainly not my responsibility – and I’ll be damned if you’re going to show me up by losing it on your first week!”
She ended up stuffing her feet into flip flops and grabbing her ‘Library ID card’ as she headed for the door. She was panicky and flustered and angry; too close to the argument to be able to tease it apart or reflect sensibly.
I hate mum and I hate me and I hate the stupid effing library and I hate these flip flops and I hate this village and I hate the whole effing sky for raining on me, she shouted internally. Each accusation slammed in time with her footfalls. She was not quite walking and not quite running but rather slapping the pavement and occasionally trotting.
What the hell do you think you look like you effing fat lump?
It was as if, now that she had a deadline to beat and somewhere to be, the entire world had become set upon thwarting her. Cars came past in random hurtling streams whenever she needed to cross the otherwise silent roads. It was like they’d designed their inconvenience especially for her – it was all custom made. All the little hold-ups incensed her although she could not really reason why. She simply had this great pool of anger which seemed to have spilt out from nowhere.
Then (oh shit, shit, shit oh my actual effing God) she stumbled on a broken drain and submerged her foot in slime.
She was generally moody, she knew that, and today she was exceptionally so, but with no good reason. The bizarrely misplaced rage served only to fuel her temper further. Each swollen, sluggish shopper she got stuck behind set her on edge as did the child on the scooter and the assortment of vans backing out of shop delivery bays.
Her shoelace coming undone was the last straw and, with her thoughts blistering with the violent reds and purples of curse words, she kicked a garden wall with vengeance. It hurt in a savagely satisfying way. She kicked it again for good measure and because she’d have liked to pummel something but had nothing to hit and because Danielle Masefield lived in the house behind it.
She did not know the village intimately, the way that Mum and all the ancient, fraying locals did. They knew the people and the houses and the shops and who slotted where like it was all a play they’d previously studied or a desk they used to work at. For Lucy, coming to the village had been like wearing a brand new coat which had hundreds of pockets in it. Over the years since she’d acquired a loose knowledge of some of the items that lived in the pockets and where some of the pockets were but had not bothered to reach the level of familiarity which would have permitted her to be able to list each pocket and its contents. She was, however, only too aware that Danielle Masefield lived at 19 Luddson Road because she’d been the only girl in their whole year not to be invited to a house party there earlier in the year.
Danielle Masefield was a bitch; when Rosa had asked why Lucy wasn’t invited she had saccharinely replied:
“I suppose I must have just forgotten her… not that she’s too easy to overlook. It’s too late now anyway, I’d love to invite her but she simply wouldn’t fit through the door. We don’t have enough space in the house for the entire year as well as a rhinoceros.”
It wasn’t even as if Danielle was a Barbie doll.
To say that Julie was unimpressed was a bit of an understatement. Somehow it had taken Lucy twenty three minutes to get to the library from home and so it was nearly ten by the time she had arrived and made her apologies.
Julie was, according to Mum, a “very sweet” old lady, mild mannered and generous. Lucy could not dispute her material generosity or her good intentions but she was determinedly stubborn and not particularly forgiving. She had accepted the apology but then spent the next half hour muttering under her breath about it; about the work load and the unreliability of teenagers and the fact that her morning had now been drastically held up.
It set Lucy on edge.
They always had a surprising number of customers considering the scale and age of the place but, that morning, the hours were sparsely decorated with lonely, unanchored people who drifted in and licked stories off of pages.
The unfamiliar blonde girl was the third visitor of the day and she entered suddenly, silently and with a vagueness that seemed to be upsetting her. She was unexpected; not least because she was somewhere close to Lucy’s own age – a rarity in a library where the concept of Youth was drifting out of grasp – and because she was brand shiny new and because she was beguiling and somehow familiar.
“Have we met before?” Lucy asked abruptly. Wondering why anyone would chose to pay the village a visit. She was less familiar with the villagers than Mum was but she knew the majority of them, especially those of the teenage generation, and she was certain that this girl was at least partially a stranger. Perhaps it was the semi-familiar face which drew her to the girl – it seemed like an intelligent mixture of memories of different people. Perhaps it was the ragged fingernails drumming the spines of some old books or the way she looked simultaneously lost and found among all these words.
The girl shook her head.
“If you say so.” Lucy said without really believing it; the girl was different and different people were the ones who got stuck in her memory like flies into cobwebs. There was something distinctly memorable about the stranger but maybe that was only due to the same cold look about her features which Lucy found in her own. Lucy could not place the girl and this intrigued her.
“So,” Lucy began, unable to avoid noticing the other girl’s reluctance to speak. She was withdrawn, tremulous; fragile with a half-hearted attempt at strength. She browsed the shelves with light detachment as if only half able to accept her own existence. Her movements were small, startled and cancelled-out. Everything about her was unfinished. She was beautiful but in a miserable kind of way like a portrait on whom the artist had not painted a smile. She was dressed in jeans, a vest top, and open baggy shirt; blond hair tied up in something that was caught between being a scarf and a ribbon. Her face was bare. Her prettiness was all incomplete and as fickle as water.
“How did you end up here?”
The girl looked uncomfortably at her canvas shoes and then began to shuffle her way through the stacks of books with more urgency.
“We moved,” she responded in a tight, raspy voice before grabbing a hardback at random and heading off towards Julie at the ‘Loans, Renewals and Inquiries’ desk.
“Here?” Lucy asked under her breath. “God help you.”
The stranger did not appear to have heard although the back of her head twitched slightly. Her ponytail swung irately like it was swatting flies.
Lucy supposed that that was not too far removed from the reality. She was an annoyance, an inconvenience, in this girl’s shut-down life. The stranger was clearly an insular-type person, the sort of person who pushed out others in some sort of self-punishment or self-protection – Lucy couldn’t tell which – and to disturb that was like being a fly around a horse’s head.
She realised she hadn’t thought about horses for a long time. There’d been one three doors down from her Gran; as a child she’d called it Beauty and then, at thirteen, had later rechristened it as Beast.
For some reason, undoubtedly because she had already been consumed by anger that morning, the girl’s behaviour infuriated her. She decided that it was also probably because it was too much like her own and therefore was like looking in an unflattering mirror, only somehow worse.
She wanted to be able to yell and steam like a kettle boiling with vengeance but the library was not the place and this girl was not the ideal victim. She did not give the illusion of being someone who would shout back. And that was all Lucy wanted; someone to storm at her until they both ran out of whatever anger had been pent up.
When she looked back she supposed that it was her Mum’s indication that she would go unwanted if she could not manage to be on time that had upset her the most. It upset her because it was so very true and so very hypocritical; no one had ever really wanted either of them for very long. She was intolerable and her Mum just seemed unlucky. They were a pair made of neglect and refusal to accept the possibility that they might be the problem.
“HEY!” she called, following the girl and ducking around a vaguely familiar, raisin-like old woman who had just entered and who was heading for the photocopier.
Calling was basically shouting, Lucy reminded herself, and shouting was basically prohibited in libraries.
“You mustn’t break the sacred code each reader has made with the words” the librarian at school had been fond of telling them. As if they signed contracts with their books which read ‘I will not talk over you; I’ll just devour you.’ She’d hated school.
Is there anything you don’t effing hate this morning? She asked herself sardonically and then marched after the girl.
Julie was just in the process of stamping the front card for the book she’d chosen and smiling wanly at her.
“The European Reformation? Are you studying it at school?” Lucy heard Julie ask and the girl nodded briefly. “Ah. It’s fascinating – a mess, of course, but fascinating.”
The girl gathered it up and nodded once more before heading out of the building. Lucy followed her, throwing Julie a quick, explanatory lie: “She dropped something.”
Outside, on the narrow strip of pavement and among the sagging apple-blossoms the girl dropped the book into the dirt and cried.
“Do you mind not throwing books on the floor – they have a tendency to fall apart,” Lucy interrupted with extreme imperiousness and as little tact as she could bear.
She flushed. “It was an accident,” she said and picked it up, scrubbing her eyes furiously in the hope that they’d wash clean and stop leaking.
“Of course. Perhaps that’s what I’ll tell the next customer who wants to read a thousand torn and dusty pages.”
“Perhaps you should tell your next customer to shove it up their arse,” she replied with a surprisingly vicious hiss.
“Of course, I think that would go down exceptionally well. I might even lose my job too into the bargain... Actually what I’d like to know is why the hell you picked up a book on the European Reformation when you were looking at a book on Combinatorial Chemistry and had also earmarked a book of Auden’s poetry-”
“You’re very observant,” she responded bitingly, “Do you want me to give you a prize?”
“You know what? I think we’re going to be very good friends.”
“I don’t want friends.”
“Exactly, we’re both sour, twisted, cynical loners. We’re totally compatible.”
“I’m not lonely.”
“No; you’re alone – there’s a difference isn’t there, one that those arseholes never can get their swollen heads around.” She said it coolly, privately thinking that this girl was the loneliest she had ever met.
“By ‘those arseholes’ are you referring to anyone particular, or just to the general mess that is human kind?”
“Yeah… we’re basically both bastards.”
The girl blinked momentarily as though unaccustomed to being referred to as such and then she shook her head, smiling ruefully and reluctantly.
“Speak for yourself; I’m going home."