This is a story I spent ages on, but could never get quite right. I don’t think the humour and the tragedy quite mesh properly, and yet I think both are essential ingredients. I’ve spent ages fiddling about with it, but have given up (for now, anyway). However, I like it enough to post it here, so I hope you enjoy it. Two things: 1) It’s a long one, or a long one for me anyway, so maybe grab a cup of tea or a snack. 2) Beware of vindictive librarians.
Vera Pinch glanced up from her screen. Around her, people were scanning bookshelves and flicking through pages. Another typical library day. She flicked her eyes back to her monitor, and continued to indulge in her hobby – amending the catalogue records of male customers. She would alter these records to say an unfortunate man had borrowed embarrassingly-titled books – books that existed only in her imagination, of course – and then she would send letters claiming them to be overdue.
Dear Mr Perry, a typical letter might go.
Your book, What’s That Wart? The A-Z of STDs, is now overdue. Please return to the library at your earliest convenience. You will be required to pay a fine for each day your book is overdue. Fines are £1 per day.
She liked to imagine the rows that would occur if a man opened such a letter in front of his wife.
Occasionally a less easily-embarrassed customer would come to confront her, and she enjoyed making sure that he left looking considerably redder than when he arrived.
‘Excuse me, I’ve never had a book called A Two-Incher: How To Make The Most Of The Motion Of The Ocean.’
‘I’m sorry, sir, I’m a little deaf. Could you repeat the name of that book, please?’
‘I said… I said, A Two-Incher: How To Make The Most Of The Motion Of The Ocean.’
By now, people would be turning to look.
‘And the author, Sir?’
‘Um… it says here, Ivor Tiddler?’
‘I said, Ivor Tiddler.’
‘You’ll really have to speak up, sir.’
Both she and the customer would hear muffled snorts erupt from around the library.
‘I do apologise, sir. I’ll just amend that record for you. There we are, you no longer have A Two-Incher.’
And then the man would skulk out the door, red as suntanned beetroot.
Now, it wouldn’t be fair to say that Vera Pinch hated men. She didn’t. She just hated her ex-husband, Jim, who’d run off one day with a member of her synchronised swimming team, flushing away not only 30 years of married life but also, as they’d been unable to replace that harpie Linda Salt in time, her team’s shot at winning gold in the Over 50’s Synchronised Dance category at the town Summer Games that year. Unable to unleash her frustration on him, instead she took it out on the unfortunate men who frequented her library.
Oh, Vera had looked for Jim. She’d hunted high and low, scouring the internet as well as phone books from towns far and wide, but she’d never been able to track down Jim Pinch or Linda Salt. Ringing directory enquiries never helped either. She’d say their names, and then the person on the other end of the phone would make a ‘pinch of salt’ joke, and she’d cut off the call in anger.
It had been two years since he’d disappeared. Unable to afford the upkeep of their home on her librarian’s wage, Vera had been forced to downsize and now lived in a grotty flat above The Great Cod Almighty, a chip shop run by a former reverend who would quote scripture at Vera while she waited for her Tuesday evening haddock. She’d been forced to sell her furniture, and had replaced it with cheap, shonky second hand bits and pieces from charity shops, none of which matched. In fact, their only common factor was an ability to absorb the chip shop aroma that oozed up through the floorboards. Every time she sat down on the sofa and felt the springs digging into her backside and took a big draught of vinegary air, she cursed the name of Jim Pinch.
It was only her job at the library that kept her going. True, she carried her frustrations into work with her and generally spent all day with a face like a granite bulldog, but she did love books and at least it got her out of the flat. Look forward, not back, people sometimes said to her, blissfully unaware of the icy glare they were about to receive. But she couldn’t.
But that was about to change.
It was a day like any other. Vera was at her desk, altering the records of an innocent customer, when a man wandered up to her.
Now her normal practice when dealing with customers, especially male ones, was to keep them waiting for ages, then be particularly rude until they left. True, this occasionally led to people complaining to her manager, Malcolm, but he was weak as diluted custard. When complaints came in, he’d practically tiptoe up to Vera, and shuffle his feet as waited for her to notice him. He’d mutter something about a customer’s negative feedback, and Vera would offer her most piercing stare until he felt tendrils of icy sweat pricking his forehead. Then he’d go away and rearrange the motor racing section where he felt safe.
Anyway, Vera kept the man waiting for a full minute while she tap-tap-tapped further at her keyboard, before sucking in air through her teeth and scowling up at him. ‘Yes?’ she said. She was looking particularly stern today, with her silver-grey hair tied up tightly in a bun, her wire-rimmed fifties-headmistress glasses guarding her quick brown eyes, and her cheeks pinched inwardly as though she were chewing on a wasp.
The man blinked at her through his glasses. He opened and shut his mouth a few times, before managing to say: ‘Er, ‘scuse me…’
‘Yes?’ Vera said again, thinning her lips.
‘Do you have a, a copy of Tess Of The D’Urbervilles? I couldn’t see one on the shelves and…’
‘It’s out,’ snapped Vera.
‘Oh… okay,’ said the man. ‘Will it… will it be back soo…?’
‘Ri… right,’ said the man. Vera looked him up and down. Well-dressed he was, although it was fair to say his suit had gone out of fashion sometime before disco. But something about him gave Vera cause to pause. Maybe it was his nervousness, or perhaps it was the constant blinking – which Vera later found was down to an eye infection he’d never had treated – that was oddly endearing.
‘That’s my favourite book,’ she added. Those four words made this the longest conversation she’d had with a customer in years.
And it was her favourite. Tess had been used and disposed of by men in the most repugnant of ways, and Vera felt she could certainly identify with that, although she hadn’t ended up murdering Jim Pinch. Not yet, anyway, but wait until she tracked him down.
‘Yes, I love it too, but I haven’t read it in the longest time.’
‘My wife took all our books when she left me.’
Vera looked again at this man. His thinning hair, thick glasses, bitten fingernails and blinking eyes hardly made him catch of the day, unless you were a particularly unfussy fisherman. Yet she felt something inside her, something that she thought had long since hardened irreparably, thaw ever so slightly.
‘Would you like me to call you when it’s returned?’ she asked.
‘Oh… yes. Please,’ said the man. ‘That would be nice.’
‘Okay then. Can I get your name?’
And that was how Vera Pinch got together with Alan Purnell. She rang him when the book was returned, he came in to get it, they got chatting – stiltedly, admittedly, and mainly about Tess Of The D’Urbervilles (well, that and the terrible one-way system around the mattress factory that had caused his journey to take twice as long as it should), but it was the most either of them had talked to a member of the opposite sex in some years. And, eventually, Alan had plucked up the courage to ask Vera if she’d like to go for a drink.
And so Vera found herself at with Alan at the Leaky Cock, a pub she and Jim had never visited. She remembered that he’d preferred the Tart’s Bosom, which had turned out to be all too apt. She was disturbed from this reverie as Alan returned from the bar, bearing a pint of this week’s guest ale, Ploughman’s Whippet, and a white wine. He handed Vera her drink and sat down.
‘Well… cheers,’ he said.
‘Cheers,’ said Vera. She clinked her glass against his and took a gulp of ale. Alan sipped daintily at his wine.
‘So…’ he said.
‘Yes?’ said Vera.
‘Um…’ he said.
There was silence for a short while. Alan took another drink. Vera said: ‘You haven’t done this for a while, have you?’
‘Actually, I drink quite often,’ said Alan, smiling nervously.
That was the sort of joke that Jim would have made, of the type that drove Vera potty. She gave Alan a warning look.
‘Sorry,’ said Alan. ‘You’re right, it’s been a while. You’re the first lady I’ve taken anywhere since June left me.’
‘And you’re the first man I’ve let take me out since Jim left me.’ And the first who’s asked, she thought.
‘So how do you like working at the library?’
‘It passes the time.’
A bit more silence. Alan was beginning to sweat around the forehead, reminding Vera of Malcolm, which was not a good thing. Vera took pity on him.
‘Tell me a bit about yourself,’ she said.
And that was where Vera’s new beginning began.
Now we can fast-forward through the next few years. A film would illustrate this by showing calendar pages flipping faster and faster, then slowing down every few moments and panning away to some of the details of Alan’s slow, hesitant seduction, if you can call it that, of Vera. Trips to art galleries and museums, which Vera enjoyed, and the snooker, which she didn’t. Walks in the park, hand in hand. Their first visit to each other’s houses, with Alan politely pretending he couldn’t smell the vinegary stink at Vera’s. Sharing details of their past, Vera talking about her troubles with Jim and Alan about his with June, a who’d left him for Harry Lamb, a local butcher. Nights out. Nights in, with Alan sleeping on the sofa of course, at least for the first few months. Their first time sharing a bed, with all the awkwardness of two people who hadn’t done that in a very long time. Agreeing to move in together. Vera putting her flat on the market, because there was no way in hell they were going to live there when they could live at Alan’s far more serviceable semi-detached. Them considering marriage, but deciding against it, Alan because he felt he, at least, was too old to go through all that again and Vera because the memory of Jim’s betrayal still lingered. Vera moving in and arranging her books in among Alan’s, finding the library’s copy of Tess Of The D’Urbervilles and having a row with him about people who don’t return books. The two of them sitting on the sofa one day, watching some junk property programme on television and Vera realising that, although she wasn’t the sort to say it out loud, she was happy.
She reflected on this feeling for a while. It was certainly something of a novelty, this sense of encompassing warmth. She hadn’t felt like this in over ten years, not since before Jim had buggered off with that mad-haired, jowly old heifer, Linda. She stopped, and scolded herself. No more of this, she thought. Perhaps people were right. It was time to look forward, not back.
And as the years went on, Vera and Alan grew more and more comfortable together. Vera chivvied Alan into getting his eyes seen to and now, thanks to only a dozen rounds of eye drops each day and tablets before, after and sometimes during meals, his infection had cleared up. He’d stopped stammering, and could now talk to anyone about anything, especially snooker. He’d stopped biting his nails. He looked healthier, and for that matter, so did Vera. She had brightness in her eyes again, and she no longer withdrew into herself at work, hunched up and arms across her chest, the way she had for so many years. She even started being nice to Malcolm, a change that, if anything, made him even more nervous around her. She’d gone to see him one day to ask for a week off and discovered him in the motor racing section again, where he’d made a little fort out of copies of Nigel Mansell’s biography. He remained there, eyes peeping over the roof, and squeaked, ‘yes, fine,’ when she told him her request. Still, the customers, at least, welcomed the new Vera, and often popped over for a chat and to hear what new arrivals she’d recommend they read.
Vera was now the happiest she’d ever been. Jim Pinch hadn’t even crossed her mind in many a month. She was happy, Alan was happy, and she was looking forward to their retirement together.
And then she found the library card.
It fell out of his pocket one day as she was doing the washing, a little rectangular slab of plastic. What’s that, Vera wondered, as she stooped to grab it. She examined it. A library card, definitely, but not from her library. This was for the library on the other side of town. Why would he need this? There were no books they could get that she couldn’t. She mulled this over as the washing machine chugged away. She could already feel the familiar black clouds of dread circling her mind.
She didn’t mention it to Alan that evening as they sat watching Coronation Street and EastEnders. She didn’t mention it the next morning over their breakfast (as always, she had porridge, he had Coco Pops; there were some habits that even she hadn’t been even to change). Instead, she went to work as normal and then, before any customers arrived, called the other library.
‘Good morning,’ chirruped a lady’s voice on the other end of the phone.
‘Good morning,’ said Vera. ‘I wanted to check if my partner had any library books that needed to be renewed.’
‘No problem, madam. Can you read me the number from his library card, please?’
Vera reeled off a list of digits.
‘Thank you, madam, now let’s see here… your partner has two books on loan from us at the moment. The first one is Baize Of Glory: Snooker’s 20 Most Exciting Matches.’
Vera had actually seen that book, stuffed in among Alan’s myriad of other snooker tomes, but hadn’t given it a second glance.
‘And the second,’ continued the voice, ‘is called How To Have An Affair And Get Away With It.’
Vera hung up.
The rest of the day passed in a haze. Vera was so distracted that even Malcolm noticed, but didn’t dare comment. She checked books in and out without a word to anyone, then dragged herself home. She let herself in the front door, and found herself in the kitchen. She dumped her handbag on the table and leaned her head against the cool thrum of the fridge, hoping it would ease her banging headache.
‘You all right, Vera, love?’
Alan entered the kitchen. He’d been in the lounge when Vera arrived home, and had been surprised to see her wander straight past and into the kitchen, without even bothering to take off her coat. Vera turned, took a couple of steps, then leaned back against the cutlery drawer, staring at him as if he wasn’t there.
‘Vera? You okay?’
She dropped her gaze. She reached into her pocket and withdrew Alan’s library card. She handed it to him. He looked at it.
‘Where did you find this?’ he asked.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ she mumbled. ‘Why do you have it?’
‘Well…’ He took off his glasses, cleaned them with the edge of his jumper, and put them back on. ‘I took a book out, of course.’
‘A snooker one. Baize Of Glory.’
‘You didn’t ask me if we had it. Why not?’
‘Well, I… I was over the other side of town a month or so ago, so I just went into the library there to have a nose around. I think it was a Thursday or a Friday. I saw that book and fancied reading it, so I… I just became a member and borrowed it.’
‘I rang this library.’ Vera’s voice was almost robotic. It was as if she wasn’t really having this conversation; instead she was watching herself from outside her body while a computer spoke for her. ‘I asked them what books you had. That snooker one, yes, but there’s also another one. Isn’t there?’
‘Eh? No. No, love,’
Vera almost found herself fooled by the denial, found herself wondering if perhaps another librarian was pulling the same trick she used to. Maybe he hasn’t really taken that book out at all. She looked into his deep, dark, now uninfected eyes… and she could see the guilt there.
‘I’m… I’m not lying, love. What are you accusing me of?’
‘You’ve got a book,’ she snarled, ‘Called How To Have An Affair And Get Away With It.’
Alan’s face was pale.
‘Didn’t bloody work, did it?’
Continuing to face Alan, she felt her hand opening the drawer behind her.
‘Who is it?’ she demanded. ‘Who is it?’
‘Can we talk about this?’
Her fingers scrabbled around until they found the reassuring heft of the bread knife.
‘I… I love you, Vera.’
Alan and some tart. Jim. Linda. The present and the past collided in Vera’s head. She felt hot and sick, but most of all, she felt fury way beyond anything she’d felt before. How could she have let this happen again? How could she have trusted anyone again? How could she have been so stupid?
‘Vera? I’m not having an… an affair, love. I promise you.’
And that’s when fury took control. She wrenched the knife from the drawer and stabbed Alan in the guts with it. And then she did it again, and again, and again, and now she wasn’t killing Alan, she was killing Jim, and it felt good, and she stabbed again and again, and she didn’t even stop when Alan hit the floor, blood hissing from his wounds, a choking, coughing sound coming from his throat, and he was dead.
The fury left as suddenly as it had arrived. Her legs felt weak. Vera fell to the floor.
It could have been minutes or hours, but Vera was suddenly able to gather herself again. She sat up, back against the dark wood of the kitchen cupboards. She looked at the corpse of Alan Purnell, blood still spilling from the knife wounds. Whatever it was in her that Alan had thawed all those years ago had frozen again. The sensation was welcome enough in the circumstances.
Vera pulled herself to her feet, and regarded Alan coldly, in the same way she’d looked at men in the years since Jim had gone and he’d come along. He’d been the same as Jim, in the end, which meant he’d deserved it. And she knew what had to happen now. She wouldn’t take the coward’s way out.
First, though, she washed the blood from her hands in the kitchen sink and then hung up her coat in the cupboard under the stairs. Then she went to her handbag. She picked up her phone and dialled 999. ‘Emergency services, what service do you require?’ came the voice on the other end. She hung up again. That was enough. They’d come now.
While she waited, Vera went upstairs. She changed her clothes. She re-pinned her hair. Then she came back downstairs, stepped over Alan’s corpse and sat down at the kitchen table. She produced a compact from her handbag and refreshed her make-up. Then she went through that day’s post. Bills. Fliers for people standing in the local elections next week. A letter for Alan. She opened it.
‘Dear Mr Purnell,’ it began.
Your book, How To Have An Affair And Get Away With It, is now overdue. Please return to the library at your earliest convenience. You will be required to pay a fine for each day your book is overdue. Fines are £1.50 per day.
(My working days are Monday to Wednesday. For queries the rest of the week, please contact Paul Tucker, Librarian, on the below number.)
Vera stared at the letter. Then she thought about the similar letters she used to send. And then she looked again the name of the sender.
June who “took all our books when she left me”?
June who’d run off with Harry Lamb, the butcher?
It couldn’t be.
But surely Alan wouldn’t have borrowed a book from his ex-wife?
“My working days are Monday to Wednesday.”
“I think it was a Thursday or a Friday.”
Vera felt sick. In a daze, she went back to the kitchen and stared at the stiffening corpse on the floor. Blood was congealing in the cracks of the floor tiles. Alan’s eyes stared at her.
There was a bang at the door.