“Could we divert a library assistant to shelve these returns while I’m at the book meeting? Celia is familiar with their classification.”
“I expect it’s time I got to grips with it,” I said. “Celia’s writing tickets.”
“Oh, dear.” The music librarian regarded me as if doubting my vinyl-shelving capabilities. I wondered where he bought his waistcoats; today’s was a subdued paisley affair. Above it, his nose twitched, and I noticed for the first time a bruise under one pink-rimmed eye.
“Mr Warren, is that a black eye?” I joked, thinking it a smudge of grime from the book-hoist or the basement. He turned his head away, muttering something about a cupboard door, before consulting his watch.
“Is that the time? I must be off. I’ll be late.”
Beneath prematurely white hair, he had flushed rose-red. Pulling on gloves, he bustled out in a flurry of last-minute reminders.
A moment later, he was back. I handed him his copy of The Bookseller, marked up with the titles he’d selected to order for the music library bookshelves.
Mr Warren was the borough’s music librarian, in the days when public libraries still loaned out vinyl long-playing records.
Back then, I was fresh from library school, working my year of approved service before qualifying as an Associate of the Library Association. I was the last borough-sponsored trainee; by the seventies, public library cuts had begun.
I’d been a last-minute recruit to library school when the borough's proposed trainee failed the required A-Level exams. On my return from college, I was passed around departments until a vacancy arose in the borough’s second largest branch, where the main music library was located. I was third in the lending library’s pecking order – after the branch librarian and his deputy – and was timetabled into the music library on Wednesday mornings to cover for Mr Warren’s absence while he was at book selection meetings.
After several attempts at filing the returned long-playing records, I co-opted Celia from the workroom and tried not to notice when she pulled out some I had already filed.
“Classification wasn’t my strongest subject,” I said, not mentioning that I hadn’t turned up for half the lectures.
“He catalogues the records and music scores himself,” she said. “I process them when they arrive, so I’ve got used to his system.”
I left Celia in charge while I went for my tea break.
Sharon and Colin, the youngest of the library assistants, were still in the staff room with Mrs Roper, a seasoned part-timer who wielded the kettle.
“Hello, dear. How are you finding the record library?”
“A world unto itself,” I said. “Celia’s sorting me out. Otherwise, Mr Warren will never trust me with his LPs again.”
Sharon mimicked alarm and wrung her hands. “Oh dear, oh dear! What’s Brubeck doing in with Beethoven?”
Colin sniggered. “You don’t want to know, young Sharon.”
Mrs Roper ignored them. “Tea, dear?”
“Yes, please. I feel guilty for making him late with all my questions.”
“He’s always worried he’ll be late, but he never is. The world will end before that man is late for anything.”
Sharon said, “It must be all that worrying that turned his hair white.”
He did seem young to have white hair but, at twenty-two, I was no judge. Other librarians were older than me by default, and Mr Warren’s mobile face was difficult to put an age to.
“Unless our Bobby’s been at the peroxide,” said Colin. I tried to remember if I’d seen signs of dark roots among the white.
The nickname Bobby suited the way he bobbed from one task to another, but it was always Mr Warren to his face. Nobody called him Robert. He rarely frequented the staff room himself, always having business to attend to when relieved for his breaks.
Sharon said, “Perhaps he had a shock that turned his hair white.”
“Oo!” squealed Colin, his eyes wide as if goosed, and Sharon dissolved into giggles.
“Come on, sunshine.” Mrs R pointed at the clock. “We’re on the counter.” Her gaze shifted to Sharon. “And you, milady, are due shelving.”
That weekend was Mr Warren’s Saturday off. On the Monday I was relieving him for a tea break as Mrs Roper brought in the newly written borrowers’ tickets. One new library member shared the name of a film star.
He said, “She’s a long way from Hollywood,” and Mrs R said, “Go on with you,” and nudged his arm. His wince was accompanied by a sharp intake of breath.
“Oh, I am sorry, Mr Warren. Are you alright?”
His face almost matched his hair, but he managed a smile of reassurance before scurrying to the gents.
It was the Monday following that he didn’t turn up for work. We knew by nine o’clock that something must be wrong; Mr Warren was never late. The phone rang in the branch librarian’s office. Soon after, the deputy was called into the office. Nobody was surprised when she came out to amend the timetable.
Mr Warren was off for two weeks. Word was that he’d been in an accident; his sick note mentioned ribs. Nobody knew where he lived. Celia said he used to live with his mum before she died. “Must be two years ago. Afterwards, he sold the house.”
“That’s right,” said Mrs Roper. “I remember him fussing about viewings. You know how he is.”
He was missed, and not because we were a man down; we weren’t short of staff in those days. Borrowers asked after him, and even Colin contributed to the large chocolate rabbit that Personnel sent on with our “get well” card. (Easter was imminent and Mr Warren was known to have a sweet tooth.)
On his return, he slipped back into routine but, despite an air of determination that normal service be resumed, something was missing.
“Do you think Mr Warren’s all right?” Mrs Roper asked the staff room. “He seems to have lost his bounce. Do you think anything’s wrong?”
“Do you mean, like cancer?” Colin was never one to tread lightly.
“I think it might be these cuts,” said Celia, who read the minutes of Library Committee meetings. “One of the proposals is to close the music library.”
“What would happen to our Bobby, then?” asked Colin. Celia shook her head.
It wasn’t unusual to find hippies and vagrants hanging around the foyer, especially in winter. This one was scrawny, red-haired, and younger than our regulars.
It was the branch librarian’s day off. Mr Warren slipped into the empty office to make a phone call.
As I left the library at lunchtime, a police car pulled up outside. It had gone when I returned, and so had the redhead.
Whenever I forgot my sandwiches or was working late, I’d go to the nearby Wimpy Bar for lunch. One Wednesday, I noticed a distinctive white head at a corner table.
He glanced up from his journal and, having acknowledged each other, it would have been churlish not to join him.
“Hello,” I said. “Do you come here often?” In my defence, I’ve never been good at small talk.
“Hardly ever,” he said. “We usually go to the Town Hall restaurant after book meetings, but I couldn’t face it this week.”
“Well, don’t let me interrupt your reading,” I said.
He closed the journal. “I’m not taking it in. None of it seems relevant anymore.” His eyes were bleak. “I’m afraid I’m not a sparkling lunch companion at the moment.”
I returned the wry smile. “Would you like me to sit elsewhere?”
“No… no, not at all. Unless you'd rather, of course.” He surveyed the Wimpy Bar. “How are you finding the job?”
“It’s not a demanding post, is it; maybe I’m missing something.”
“Demanding – no, it isn’t. I grew up thinking of libraries as a wonderland of books, but the reality is a mundane juggling of budgets and shelf space and paperwork. The borrowers are lovely though, especially when you find them something they hadn’t discovered yet. I’ve enjoyed developing the collection; it was such a mish-mash when I arrived.”
“You sound as though you’re leaving.”
“Who knows? Who knows anything?” He sighed. “Everything’s gone topsy-turvy. My ex is mad as a hatter, my employer wants to cut off my department, and I have a young mortgage to support. I ought to advertise for a lodger.”
“Are you serious?” I said. “I’m thinking of moving out of my parents’ house.” His eyes widened briefly in what might have been alarm. “My mother keeps pressuring me to find ‘someone nice’ – I daren’t take anybody home.” Resentment rose with the telling. “I need some independence.”
“Independence is overrated.” He drained his frothy coffee. “I must get on. Can’t keep Celia waiting.”
According to my watch, we had twenty minutes to cover a five-minute walk. “I should go too.”
He left a tip under his saucer, so I didn’t bother. I’d need every penny to embrace independent living. Even if I couldn’t convince him I’d be a reliable lodger, my decision had been made.
Outside the Wimpy Bar, we turned into the March winds.
“So, where is it you live, exactly?”
The opening to Beethoven’s Fifth chimed down the hall of the neat mid-terrace.
Inside was unnaturally tidy. An upright piano shared the under-stairs space with the electricity metre, and the living room had an open fireplace. The mantlepiece was empty except for a clock with a crack that forked across the glass of its face.
The second bedroom was a good size, accommodating a small double bed and desk, as well as the usual bedroom furniture.
In the kitchen, Mr Warren – Robert – opened the door to present a narrow back garden. At the far end, a pigeon flapped, its leg caught in plastic netting.
“I’d better free the poor thing before next door’s cat gets it.”
I watched the rescue from a tiny patio. Smartly casual in pale grey, he appeared younger, less constrained, until he jerked to attention at the sound of the doorbell.
Another viewer, perhaps? Disappointment lurched within me. “Shall I get it?” I offered.
The skinny redhead wasn’t expecting me to answer the door and curtailed whatever opening had been prepared.
“I’m here tae see Bunny.”
“Mr Warren’s coming. He’s tied up at the moment.”
“So, who might you be?”
“I’m here about the room to let.”
“Din’t waste much time, did he?”
“Sandy? What do you want?” Robert was behind me, so I moved from the door.
“I’ve come for my gear; I couldnae get in before. You’ve changed the f****** lock.”
“Well, what did you expect? Wait there, I’ll get your things.”
He shut the door and disappeared into the living room, returning with two bulging black bags. I opened the front door for him to thrust them outside. He closed the door again without comment, hands shaking as he fastened the security chain.
“Sorry about that. I should have warned you to hook the chain before you opened the door.”
We watched from the living room window as Sandy heaved the bags into the back of a red Mini and drove away. Robert sighed. “Who would want to live here with the threat of that turning up on the doorstep?”
“I would,” I said. “A comfortable room, an approachable landlord, close to work… what more could I ask?”
“A quiet life?”
“If I wanted a quiet life, I’d be staying with Mum. How much are you asking?”
We agreed my deposit over a pot of tea, and I said I’d move in next weekend. He said he’d have a rent book for me by then, and I made a joke about doing it “by the book”.
He shook his head and said, “That’s awful. If that’s the level of humour I’ll be living with, I should be charging more,” and I said I wasn’t taking advice on puns from someone known as Bunny Warren.
“Colin would love that,” I said, and his mouth fell open.
“You wouldn’t. Promise you wouldn’t.”
But, by now, he knew I wouldn’t, and we both ended up giggling. Who’d have guessed our meticulous music librarian had a fluffy side.
I didn’t want to outstay my welcome and left when I’d finished my tea. I got as far as the corner.
“I hope you didnae sign anything, pet. There’s things you should know about oor Bunny.”
I tried to walk on, but my arm was seized in a tight grip. Sandy’s slender fingers were stronger than they looked.
“Well, if you’re not interested, I reckon that snotty library where he works will be.”
Stupidly, I sneered. “Maybe where you come from. Down here, we’re more civilised.”
The tussle to free my arm dragged us back around the corner. The street was empty on this quiet Sunday morning. Where were the nosy neighbours when you needed them? A leg hooked behind mine to unbalance me, and now I was the one hanging on to stop myself falling to the ground. Sandy kicked out wildly, and I felt myself slipping.
Then a whirling blur of white and grey was laying into my assailant with a fireside poker. I fell to the ground as Sandy backed away, sobbing.
“I swear, Sandy, if you don’t leave me alone, I will have you prosecuted. Assault is still an offence, as far as I know.” I sat up and rubbed my arm. “Are you all right, Al?”
“A few bruises. I’ll live.” The ones on my legs clamoured for attention, but I resisted the impulse to rub them.
He helped me stand. “Go away, Sandy. Just go!”
And Sandy went.
We watched the Mini out of sight before walking back to Rob’s. I caught him glancing at the poker as if wondering how it got there. In spite of his bemused expression, there was a new assurance to his movements.
In the kitchen, he put the kettle on and told me to sit. He wanted to check my bruises.
I liked the sound of that.