© Simon Totten
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The Four Letter Word
Liz Fraser is not small, short, wee, pint-sized or undersized, she is petite. In her heeled boots she feels ten feet tall. In her red lipstick and sunflower dress she is pretty in an unremarkable kind of way. Though her hair is mousey and her manner meek and mild she is far from timid, a fire burns in her ice blue eyes. But she would never harm a fly. In fact, she wouldn’t say boo to a goose.
Blustering through the revolving doors of Monkton Hill Public Library she removes her plastic red mac. Pearls of early Spring rain drop onto the foyer as she places it on her peg. The second hand of the big clock on the wall ticks onto 9.05am. ‘That’s strange,’ she thinks. ‘I left at my usual time, caught the same bus, from the same stop. The journey to work was its usual humdrum series of events, nothing out of the ordinary occurred, no delays, nothing. Yet in the two years she had spent there working as a Library Assistant, she could not recall ever being late before.
She glances around nervously, hoping nobody has spotted her. Hiding herself away in the aisle, under the bookshelves, she sets about her morning routine, habitual rituals, she could perform in her sleep. As she runs her finger along the book spines, making sure they’re level, neat, tidy and in strict Dewey Decimal order, she attempts to convince herself she is like a teacher, accountant, lawyer, solicitor, estate agent, journalist or any other decent hard working professional who makes a steady, valuable contribution to society. But it’s no use. There is no doubt in her mind. She’d rather be dead than be here.
Fate has dealt her a cruel blow. She only has herself to blame. Perhaps if she’d thought it through a little more, showed more ambition, guts. Maybe had better careers advice at school. Gone easy at the parties at Uni, she wouldn’t have ended up in this insanely dull vacuum of dust, silence and repression.
Then came the dreaded smell. The pungent musty perfume wafting on a wave of icy air that always froze her heart with fear. ‘Finished yet ?’ asks the chief Librarian and illustrious leader, AKA the old bag that ran the place, Merkel Harrington.
‘Not yet,’ she replies, looking over her shoulder. ‘Won’t be long.’
This morning Merkel is on the warpath, clucking and fussing like a battered old bird, strutting the dusty terrain of shelving. Her freshly starched collars like miniature nuclear missiles, ready, aimed and lethal. Liz braces herself for a pre-emptive strike. But before it arrives, Merkel’s shoulder pads explode and rip her head clean off. Her severed head flies into the book bin. Liz smiles. Seeing her lose her head for the fifth day running is even more satisfying than the first.
Today is just like any other. Groundhog. There is no escape from the face off with the general public, it’s like being sent to the gallows. They appear at the counter with immaculate timing, creeping up on her like gruesome monsters just when she least suspects it, grunting vague instructions at her, making unreasonable demands on her. Enquiries from spotty faced geeks for homework books on the Romans, or finding out the capital of Lithuania. Bored housewives seeking baking recipes, cake decorations or flower arranging books. Bony old men desperate for gardening tips to win the leek show or a quick sneak at the racing post or the lingerie ads in Cosmopolitan.
The controversy over fines, stealing books or smuggling rare scientific periodicals out of the library always causes great consternation, sending ripples of disgusted outrage among the staff. For Liz though, it provides rare moments of comedy gold, knicker wetting excitement, an adrenaline rush like no other. Who needs sex, bungees, skydiving or a line of coke?
On a regular basis, Bruce Willis visits Liz. They have known each other for years. They have history. Nothing between them, you understand, they’re just good friends. Liz has always been a big fan of his Die Hard movies. His no-nonsense approach is just what she needs when dealing with what are generally known in the trade as ‘difficult’ customers. Wearing his trademark white stringy vest he comes in complaining about how Demi Moore gets far too much of his money. How his hectic filming schedule doesn’t allow him to get his library books back on time. Liz finds it all quite endearing.
But what happens next is excruciatingly pleasurable. Bruce loses it when he realises his books are way over due and he doesn’t want to pay the fines. He goes beserk, completely apeshit. She savours the look on peoples’ faces just before Bruce puts his gun in their mouths and pulls the trigger. He shoots everyone, except her of course, she hides underneath the counter. When it’s safe enough to raise her head, she sees blood up the walls, all over the shelves and bits of flesh sliding down the index cabinet. After that, Bruce comes up to her and shakes her by the hand.
‘Congratulations man, don’t know how you stuck it for so long,’ he says. From then on, well for an hour or so at least, counter duties are almost bearable.
By around 11.30am, it’s time for the mini bus trip. Every Thursday on Pensions day she collects the wrinkly old dears for a trip to the library, then cajoles them in for tea and biscuits before the grand finale of choosing the latest bestselling large print.
The more they deliberate on the latest Mills and Boon romance, the more the Dalek appears, its third eye stalking unsuspecting book browsers. Every now and then it stops, the lid opens and from its main chamber a mutated green form of Merkel’s face with the arms of an octopus waving from her head pops up to inspect the shelves. The claw on her hand reaches out to straighten the books that Liz had overlooked. Then the panels light up and flash as she delivers a foul mouthed rant. The more angry she becomes, the more the wires in her head spark and fuse. Sometimes she spontaneously combusts, then extinguishes herself, returns inside, closes the lid and carries on.
The Dalek then patrols the shelves for several minutes, shouting ‘Exterminate, Exterminate, Euthanasia, Euthanasia. Liz can’t help herself, then. The sheer embarrassment forces her into an impromptu toilet break.
Liz uses her lunch hour to calm down a bit after that. She couldn’t believe her luck when no other staff ever came in the staffroom for lunch. Hilary Owen, the other half of the library’s dynamic duo, second in command always went home for lunch. And Merkel? Well, she would neverstoop so low to suffer the voluntary company of her minnions. Going out for lunch was a non-starter for fear of meeting the public outside the confines of the Library building.
Lunch hours had developed into long, lonely affairs, invariably spent in the company of a couple of slices of stale bread and limp leaves of lettuce, rescued from her fridge, hurriedly assembled and left in a plastic Tupperware dish to suffocate.
The whole experience was made bearable while seeing how the other half live in Hello magazine. Perusing the latest celebrity gossip while munching a king-sized bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Chocolate had become guilty vices, an irresistible slice of heaven.
The staffroom had become her refuge, a sanctuary where the main aims of her lunch hour were invariably satisfied. To avoid human contact at all costs, wallow in luxurious self-indulgence and find inner peace.
She prises herself away from the comfort of the sofa that sagged in the middle to return to work on time. Merkel would notice if she was a minute late and crack her whip.
A further three excruciating hours of torturous solitude follow. Even though she is always accompanied by Hilary, the resident cataloguing expert. An ageing spinster with thin wispy hair, tinged with grey who has spent the majority of the last 19 years within the confines of these four walls. A relic, an antique, always smart, prim and proper. She is like fine elegant china, gathering dust on the shelf which was quite clearly where she had been left, quite some time ago. The skin on her face wears the stiff look of an old leather shoe. The perfect downward curve of her lips is like that a child might draw to represent someone profoundly unhappy. She speaks so rarely it makes Liz feel there was nothing worse than being alone in company.
She sits in the usual desk, the afternoon sun and lunch making her drowsy. Cut off from reality, oblivious, lost in a world of barcodes, indexes, orders and stock taking. As usual, time is dragging. The order and sequence, the predictability of it all is driving her crazy, numbing her mind, rotting her soul, ebbing her life away but there is nothing she can do about it. She resigns herself to a slow painful death.
From her seat she can make out the last rays of sunshine through the window outside. Prison sentences must be easier than this, she ponders.
Often, usually when muddling through batches of local history texts, Liz exploits cunning opportunism and a cold, calculated expertise to slice Hilary up with a chainsaw and index her body parts into neat piles to be posted with inter-library loans. Or if she is feeling particularly creative she laces her afternoon tea with arsenic, and reads Keats and Shelley poetry to her. Then watches with contented pleasure as she flakes out.
Finally, at last, the old clock ticks onto 5. 33pm, piercing the silence. She has already spent three minutes too long in this place so she makes a run for freedom. She takes her red mac off the coat peg and puts it on. As part of her daily routine, just to round things off nicely with something of a thrilling climax, she likes to tie Hilary to the Horror Crime section.
‘Please, untie me, let me go free I beg you,’ pleads Hilary, her face almost purple with rage.
‘In your dreams, bitch,’ she replies.
Liz grabs her bag, taking the can of petrol out of it and dousing Hilary. She smiles contentedly before striking a match and casually flicking it in Hilary’s direction. As the yellow flames ignite furiously, her face turns red with anguish, screaming out in agony as the flesh on her face melts and drips onto the freshly vaccumed Library carpet.
As Hilary burns in the flames with horror fiction and crime thrillers, the Dalek moves up and down the shelf aisles. Exterminate, Exterminate, Euthanasia Euthanasia’ it repeats. Bruce leaps out from the counter again and sprays any remaining stragglers who refuse to leave with his machine gun. The Escape door is in sight. Liz makes a beeline for it, but a voice calls her back.
She hears the words she has always dreaded. The ones she has regular nightmares about. ‘Have you got a minute? Can you step into my office please? I won’t keep you long,’ says Merkel.
Exasperated, Liz leaves her bag outside the door and drags herself into Merkel’s small but efficiently organised office. She slumps in the chair opposite Merkel’s desk. If ever there was a day she didn’t need another condescending, belittling, patronising, soul destroying lecture from a power crazed, sexually frustrated control freak with a white bottled hairdo and a dress that had enough flowers and fruit on it to fill a grocer’s shop, this was it.
Liz half knows what is coming. She has feared it for months. Without this job how could she pay her rent and bills. How would she afford to eat, clothe herself, buy luxury cat food, afford those cultural weekend breaks in European cities. Life wouldn’t be worth living.
She waits in silence with baited breath. Merkel looks down at the report on her desk and removes her spectacles on the string around her neck, her face is deadpan giving nothing away. She adjusts the position of her expansive posterior on the creaking chair as if she were about to break wind, looks Liz straight in the eye and prepares to deliver her verdict.
‘Well, you’ve performed admirably, quietly diligent in your duties, my dear’ says Merkel pompously. ‘Hilary is going to leave us next month, she can’t go on forever and we need a replacement. What would you say to a well-earned promotion?’