As a general rule, librarians consider dogs to be something that are best kept on the street side of the door.
Precious was the exception.
The library staff at the East Side Library liked their job. It wasn’t well paid, but the hours were reasonable.
The south-east corner of the building had been damaged during the war — one of the many air-raids. The town council didn’t have the funds to carry out the repairs so that part of the building had been inaccessible to the public for many years. The government engineers had reinforced the structure with massive beams of oak — one of the few things that we had in abundance after the war. So the building was safe, but there were no plans to restore it, ‘books come way down the list’, was the official reply when the head librarian sent in her yearly formal request for building repairs. It irked her that the countries that had been defeated seemed to be benefiting from reconstruction while her library lay wounded all these years after victory.
Because the damaged part of the building was not considered to be officially part of the library, Jane Delbridge did not have a problem with Terry and Precious enjoying its privacy and comfort. It was cold in this section of the building, but not as cold as sitting out on the footpath in the snow — even if she was wearing the sleeve of one of Terry’s old army jumpers as a coat.
Mrs Delbridge lost her husband in North Africa during the war, and she looked upon ex-solders with warmth and respect. Terry and Precious went to the library every Monday and Thursday — regular as clockwork. Mrs Delbridge left the side door open so Terry and Precious could enter without drawing attention to themselves. The door frame was warped from the explosion so it did not open easily. Terry thought about repairing it but decided against it — too obvious.
The room that they shared was partially open to the air, but the roof was still intact and the hole was not on the ‘bad weather side’ of the building, so water was rarely a problem. None-the-less, time was eating away at the building and Mrs Delbridge was rightly worried that the council would use the deteriorating condition of the building to justify pulling it down. It stood on prime real estate and the council could use the resultant flood of money for desperately needed projects. Fortunately, many of the library’s customers were influential members of the community and they made it clear that the building was off limits.
The room with a view as Terry called it, had an old table and a dusty couch that had been rescued from a building that was being demolished. The hole in the wall let in more than enough light to read by. Preciousclaimed one end of the couch while Terry sat and read at the other end. Cups of tea would mysteriously appear from time to time and the rings of countless cups were imprinted into the unpolished surface of the small table.
Choosing a book was the most difficult task. The library was well stocked from before the war and they had inherited books from libraries that were more unlucky. The library staff spent many hours repairing damaged books because they knew that just like money for building repairs, money for new books was way down the list.
Terry enjoyed detective stories and Mrs Delbridge had introduced him to Chandler and Hamett. She also headed him towards Green and Maugham. She was looking after his mind. He had been spared and now she would show him the wonders of beautiful words.
Sometimes, just for the enjoyment of it, Terry would read to Precious. She seemed to enjoy A Moon and Sixpence, but he wasn’t sure why. She didn’t like Dickens, which was a shame, but she did like Conan Doyle. Terry did all the voices and tried to make it as exciting as possible. He worried that Precious might get bored waiting for him each night. The truth was that Preciousdidn’t need to be entertained. All she needed was to be close by — close to Terry. That was enough for her.
“And what is your name, little one?” I was sitting in Audrey’s family room which wasn’t huge and looked a lot like it did the last time I was in it when the McKilntocks still lived here. Audrey had not made many changes to this fully furnished rental. Most women would have added and removed, but not Audrey.
It was a bright and sunny afternoon that reminded me of my childhood.
“My name’s Betty, and I’m seven and a half,” said Audrey’s daughter, still dressed in her local private school uniform — two sizes too big for her. “She’ll grow into it, and I won’t have to deal with the Mother’s group again anytime soon.”
“Your age was going to be my next question, but you beat me to it,” I said with a friendly smile. Betty smiled back — she got the joke. It is always easier to get to know a child if they appreciate your sense of humour.
Betty had been trying to read a book when I interrupted her. She was amazingly gracious for a seven and a half-year-old.
“Is that something you have to read for school, or is it for pleasure?” I asked.
“It’s for school, but I don’t mind. I like learning big words,” said Betty.
“I’ll bet you do — with those bright eyes. I’ll bet you know heaps of big words,” I said.
“Not heaps,” she corrected me, “but quite a few.”
“Do you have a favourite word?” I asked. Children like absolutes — biggest, highest, loudest, nastiest.
“It changes from day to day,” — good answer — “but today I would say that vegetarian is my favourite. Yesterday it was princess and tomorrow I think it is going to be imagination.”
“Those are all excellent words,” I said with conviction.
While our conversation was continuing, Audrey was in the kitchen with only the island bench separating us. The kettle had boiled, and freshly brewed coffee was appearing. Audrey had not asked if I wanted brewed or instant and I found that interesting. The coffee appeared on an enormous antique silver tray. The cups did not match, but they were both exquisite examples of nineteenth-century pottery making — all English in origin and were showing their age. The sugar bowl was the prettiest, and the coffee pot held just enough for four cups. The silver spoons were solid silver and also did not match. Audrey had enough taste to know that having everything look alike was not always the best way to show that you appreciate beautiful things.
“My compliments on your taste Audrey. These are lovely pieces, and I’ll bet there is a story behind each one of them,” I said as the coffee was being poured into my cup.
“Thank you. Most of these pieces come from my grandmother. She died when I was still young, and I barely remember her, but she insisted that these pieces of china be held for me,” said Audrey.
“I discovered a lot about my grandmother after my mother died. I found her diaries in an old box in my mother’s attic. I sat there and read until the light went out of the sky,” I said.
“Were they interesting?” asked Audrey.
“More than you can possibly imagine. She was an amazing lady — a war hero and much, much more. She has been an enormous inspiration to me,” I said when I remembered that I was supposed to be getting her to talk and not telling her my life story.
“I wish my grandmother had left some diaries. I would love to know a bit more about her life. My mother is wonderful, but she is not a good storyteller. I think her mother was hard on her. I don’t think they had a close relationship.”
While we were talking, Betty had taken herself and her oversized school uniform into her room which came off the family room. She left the door open, and I wondered how many more years would go by before the door would be firmly shut to keep the adult world at bay.
“When my boys were Betty’s age, they slept with the light on and the door open. Is Betty the same?” I asked. This was no idle coffee time conversation on my part. An idea had been forming in my head since my meeting with Barry.
“She has a princess nightlight, and her door always stays open. I guess all kids go through that phase,” said Audrey.
And there it was.
The opening I had been hoping for.
We talked about the usual family things for a while, and I guess I was impatient — I wanted to take a fully formed idea back to Barry, so I took a chance.
“My husband has this routine when he gets home from work. I leave him alone for a bit then I sit and listen while he tells me about his day. I’ve never met most of his work colleagues, but from his nightly debriefing sessions I feel like I could pick them out of a line-up,” I said, and Audrey smiled politely. She hesitated for a moment, and I considered whether I should have spent more time gaining her confidence before heading down this road — the wait was agonising.
“Basil’s job is very demanding,” she said followed by another long silence — I resisted the urge to fill it.
“His work is very important — he’s very important. That’s why the company is picking up the bill for the rent on this house as well as paying all our moving expenses and Betty’s school fees. Your friends, the McKlintocks were a bit greedy about the rent, but the company didn’t quibble. They need him to be close to his laboratory — I guess our needs come second.”
Another long silence.
“He isn’t supposed to talk about his work, but he does. He talks to me. I don’t understand a lot of it, but it makes him feel better to talk out loud about it. I worry about his health. He’s under a lot of pressure.” She looked panicked, as though she ought not to have said anything, but she too needed to unburden herself to someone, and I got the feeling that her mother was not the sort of person who you could unburden to.