Sarah had decided she was in love with the young man who worked in the library. His days seemed irregular, but he was normally there on Tuesdays, so she went there every Tuesday on her way home from school. Sometimes he was doing something involving a card index and a computer, sometimes re-shelving books, sometimes answering queries. He was tall and thin but with broad shoulders and a humorous, intelligent face. He was more interesting than the boys at school and much older, perhaps twenty-three. It wasn’t the sort of library where the staff wore name badges. She knew almost nothing about him.
Sarah scrutinised the young man for clues, but there wasn’t much to go on. The library was a cool place so he tended to wear jumpers, meaning she could not deduce his interests from his t-shirts. The only things he had ever said to her were things like ‘near the window on the left’ and ‘it’s due on the 24th, hope you enjoy it’. Sarah borrowed books by Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, Georgette Heyer and Margaret Irwin, Jane Austen, the Brontes and Wilkie Collins.
One day, at a loose end on a Saturday, she went to the library at lunchtime and saw him sitting outside in a patch of sun, a book in one hand and a sandwich in the other. She could see the sandwich was overloaded with salad, some of which was falling out onto a sheet of crumpled tinfoil on his lap. She went a little closer in what she hoped was a casual way – he was fairly near the door – and squinted sideways to see the title of the book. It was Portnoy’s Complaint. As she watched, unselfconsciously he laughed.
Sarah waited a couple of days and borrowed Portnoy’s Complaint, taking care that it was one of the women on the issue desk. She read it at home in a mixture of squeamishness and arousal. Did the young man from the library identify with this? Had he done, did he do, all these sexual things? (Sarah was cautious with her own body; it was still in many ways a mystery to her.) How could he sit outside reading a book like this with such relaxed absorption? She tried to picture him in his personal space, his house or room, but she could only manage slightly modified versions of her own bedroom with its unwise colour-scheme, chosen when she was twelve, and the left-over teddy bears. She imagined him taking her knickers down and entering her on the hard carpet behind his desk in the library.
For a while Sarah avoided that particular desk on her weekly visits, but her sensitivity began to subside and curiosity to reassert itself. She became ingenious: she needed a really complicated query that he couldn’t answer in a sentence. She consulted Amazon and the online catalogue to make a list of books that would send him to every corner of the library, carefully including a couple it didn’t have at all.
Ann Carr, A Glut of Tomatoes and Salad Vegetables
Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis
The Lonely Planet Guide to New York City
Guillaume de Laubier, The Most Beautiful Libraries of the World
Louann Brizendine, The Male Brain
Chris Casson Madine, Bedrooms: Creating the Stylish, Comfortable Room of Your Dreams
George Martin, Making Music
Jedediah Barry, The Manual of Detection
She ducked out early from a shopping trip with her friends and went to the library the next Saturday, in case her nerve should fail by Tuesday. Her luck was in and he was there.
‘Whoa, that’s quite a list. But I think I can find most of these for you.’
The plan was going even better than she’d hoped. He checked the catalogue with practised efficiency and noted some shelfmarks; she noticed he was able to find Freud, the Lonely Planet Guide and George Martin without checking.
‘The Male Brain is sh- it’s not very good. Why don’t you try this one instead? We don’t have your book on libraries, but is it libraries you’re interested in or great house architecture? I can show you the architecture section. That last one is fiction so it’s just shelved under fiction in alphabetical order as normal.’
It was such a warm day he was in a t-shirt and she could see the muscles of his upper arms flexing as he reached the books down to her. She was close enough to smell his deodorant.
‘There you are. You have pretty eclectic tastes, don’t you?’
She’d done it! He was talking to her! He was interested! So, inevitably, she blew it.
‘It’s – it’s for a school project.’
And she walked off to the issue desk feeling the red flood into her cheeks. Fool. Idiot. It took her two minutes to realise she hadn’t even said thankyou, and another five to remember he’d seen her every week in her uniform.
She lugged all the books home in the big bag she’d brought for shopping and slumped on the bed with them. Feeling that she might as well, she started to read them. She seemed to have taken a sudden side-turn into non-fiction. She pondered redecorating her bedroom with lots of drapes and wondered if she could manage a trip to New York when she was eighteen. Freud was curiously readable and the architecture book substituted for de Laubier’s Beautiful Libraries intrigued her with its visions of cool, lofty spaces. She texted her friend Jenny and asked if she wanted to go into town the next day to infiltrate buildings.
Sarah didn’t go back to the library for a few weeks, but she had to return the books so she ventured in again. To her surprise, as she passed the young man at his desk (he had the card index today) he looked up with a smile and spoke to her.
‘Did you enjoy any of those? It was a pretty varied collection.’
‘I liked Freud. And the architecture one. I liked that. My friend Jenny and I went to look at the cathedral and the new conference centre.’ (She was being normal! She was talking normally to him!)
‘Do you like modern architecture? I don’t know a lot about it but we have some good books on individual architects you might like to try. Look for Le Corbusier – he’s been very influential. Renzo Piano has done some amazing skyscrapers, if you’re into big expanses of glass like the conference centre. Or there’s that Spanish architect, Gaudi, who designed all those incredible buildings in Barcelona that look like melting goblin castles. I guess he doesn’t really count as modern but you should check him out.’
Sarah thought he seemed to know a lot about architecture for someone who didn’t know a lot about architecture. She borrowed books about Le Corbusier, Piano and Gaudi, and also Frank Lloyd Wright because she liked the look of the house on the cover.
Back home, she found the photographs of Le Corbusier’s buildings repellent; they made her think of all the miserable concrete office blocks she’d ever been in when her parents needed to renew a driver’s licence or talk about the mortgage; and of Piano’s buildings she preferred the great green boat of the NEMO museum to his glittering towers; but Gaudi and Frank Lloyd Wright in different ways appealed strongly. She hunted out her pencils, neglected since she’d had to pick her exam subjects and chosen Economics because it was supposed to be more useful than Art, and drew Lloyd Wright’s house Falling Water, rather faintly. Then she drew the Casa Milá in Barcelona, but instead of the roof, which she found lumpy, she made the lines of the windows grow upwards into trees.
The next week at the library the young man helped her find a book on architectural drawing. She noticed how long and graceful his hands were and, as a psychological experiment, allowed herself to revisit that vision of him fucking her on the floor. She managed to take the book off him without dropping it, which she thought was quite impressive really.
The week after that he wasn’t there. She went back to the conference centre, without Jenny, and stood in the middle of its shiny floor, but though the height and air pleased her she found the endless glass monotonous. She imagined a house for the young man: a curved roof with slanted windows, slender pillars to hold it up, books around the walls, so it would be like a forest of books with dappled light and shade. She drew the room as best she could, but she didn’t put any figures in it. Then she drew a ridiculously opulent chamber of love full of drapes and couches, and a naked girl on one of the couches, her hand trailing over her own thigh. It didn’t come out quite right but she thought she might try it again later.
He still wasn’t there the next week and she plucked up her courage to ask one of the other staff.
‘Where’s…?’ – but she realised that, after all, she’d never found out his name.
‘Oh, he’s away for a couple of months now,’ said the woman, clearly not needing any explanation of who was meant, and looking slightly amused. ‘He’ll be back by autumn.’
Sarah borrowed a book about Zaha Hadid. Then she went home and drew a house that was round, like a nest, and made of an interlace of slanted beams with glass in between for windows. It would have half-floors at different levels so that she could look down or up or across, but curtains to shut off the sections so that she could curl away in them when she wanted. Like a nest, it was open at the top, so she could fly out.