The White Library (extract)

by Paul Voermans

1,7,4,5,4,0,6,2,4,0,7,3,4,6 . . .

She knew him for an idiot on sight, but it did not stop her loving him. Helped. She didn’t know it at the time. Had no idea what it was. She just went over a calming one, seven, four, five . . . The sequence unfolded in serene paisley. Angela did sense he stood for everything unquiet and maddening in the universe. She was drawn to it as a goldfish is mesmerised by the motionless cat above. Knowing if she stayed inside herself and her numbers and their shapes she would die more surely than by this cat lofting her out of her world. Beyond the surface tension.

She took her chances in the air. She stopped counting. She watched him noticing things. She knew this much: nothing got by him, perhaps not the movement of the planet in the solar system, Milky Way in galaxy cluster. He teetered on it all as they spiralled off in multiple attractors. It was a wonder more of his hair was not standing on end. While she noticed nothing. It was his agony and people wanted to please him in it, and he them, and it turned into a competition. No, after you. She did not know how she knew such a thing. Imitating someone who knew such stuff paid off unpredictably. More than imitating. Being is destiny. Frederic Hillacre, pleased to meet you. Angela Donohoe, of course. Waggish chin tilt. This had to be self‑satire, so she smiled. The sparkling Nordic eyes locked with Angela for a moment and then his mouth dropped open. That—that was realising something and that, changing gears. She had practised them herself. Freddy transformed visibly from duffer wringing his hands on tiptoe into the inspired opportunist who’d invented this “Byllion Book Search Unit”. Less awfully, the Unit. Angela forced herself to keep looking up.

“So what are you currently on?”

“Pardon?” Chair? Medication? Parole? Back to the planets spinning round suns spinning round spinning . . . Knowing he was doing it and following his reasoning were different things.

“Remuneration. Piles of silver. Spondulicks. We can only offer you a pittance of a skerrick of a sou, I’m afraid. And when can you start?”

Flying through the air. She could almost see his whiskers. Little fish you have to fly. “15,485,863.” An outrageous lie but a lovely prime, light and airy. “Thirteen,” he snapped. It was so swift it could have been rehearsed, except he’d picked a lovely prime as well. Wooshing. Suddenly he looked alarmed. Or was it gas?

“Done.” Angela held out a hand. That was what they did in the book. The large Freddy hand coming to meet her own flappy moist part was more delicate than hers, only larger because he was tall, tall, tall. She had called his bluff and he had not hesitated. Just like in The Job is Landed. A good sign.

Then the interview began.

The only real jobs on her CV had accidentally fallen out of her courses. Angela had not experienced interviews but she had swotted for this. (A good teacher for the rest.) There were rules for interviews, but did Freddy know that? Don’t look down. He had delivered some penetrating insight about—whatever. Then bared nicotine teeth, now exposing a darting pink thing. What was he saying?

“I am certain you can be trusted with large quantities of money. Have you ever been arrested for theft?”

He peered at her over rimless spectacles.

She gulped and saw six screws of two sizes all east‑west, a chance alignment, and she blurted:

“I suffered from sleep stealing.” That was not out of the book! (It was borrowed from her brother’s life. She uncrossed and crossed her legs to think of Nigel. She had to cross them again to make it come out right.) “A very rare condition brought on by my mother’s death.”

“Oh I am sorry.”

Angela looked up in surprise. People said sorry. Your life or condition or whatever made from childhood events. Never you. Did he know what had happened? And after? Of course not. “I once woke up in a bed full of pesos. All I could remember was a safe combination: right to forty‑one, left to eighty‑three, right to seventy‑one, and left to three. There was a forty P tram ticket in my pocket.” Too many primes.

He bounced around a bit, which Angela took as a good sign. “But you were never caught.”

“I must have been pretty good at it.” When he laughed, she got herself to smile though given the premise it was merely a reasonable conclusion. Inez would have smiled. Inez gave nothing away when it came to men. How often had she observed her saying it was a war? It seemed unlikely, but Inez was successful. Department head one day.

“Do you enjoy danger? Because I mean, ha, a rare book search is fraught, simply fraught. ‘Endlessly anxious hands’ eh? Why I once met a book that was cursed. Nobody could handle it. Walks Around Geological Hotspots of Western Victoria. Woo, scary stuff. Two hundred-year-old volume. Every time one of us arranged to fetch it there was some sort of mishap. And the owner refused to post. Refused to touch it, Peter said. In the end we had to get a copy from interstate, which cost a fortune it was so huge. Imagine taking it on a walk round Western Victoria! So, it’s not all cardigans and Morris Minyas, no sir! Actually that’s why you got this job; I mean we lost poor Esteban and it’s taken months to replace him.”

“You mean—?”

“What? No. Oh no, just one more mishap in a long list for that boy. Got jack of it and went into the Royal Armada, said it was safer in Niugini. He was always falling off ladders and getting stuck in lift doors—could be dead for all I know, access to weaponry and all. Not to mention Islanders. Or could be generalissimo! ‘For not from the east or from the west and not from the wilderness comes lifting up’—never can tell, eh?”

“So is there much climbing ladders?”

“None at all. Well quite a lot actually. Depends! The whole idea of the Unit is to seek out what cannot be fathomed from the collection. We use the resources information technology has provided, you know the World Ring, scanning, all the tools, to extend the range of a library, knock down the walls and open up librarians’ minds to new opportunities. ‘Progress is accomplished by the man who does things.’ Or woman, of course. Library of the eighties! In the seventies. March 1983 at least. Heh.”

“Oh.”

“So, we come full circle. I suppose you’re wondering what all this has to do with the job.”

Angela waited. She was still looking up. It was not that hard now. He had skin like a cloud.

“Good question. It’s really quite a simple thing we do: respond to calls, hunt down rare books, and make sure customers get the best price and speediest delivery service. But it’s more than that. We have to link all the resources. A library isn’t just an institution anymore. It has to fly! It has to soar. It’s a part of a network. So we have to work with other libraries as well. It isn’t just a building. That’s where you come in.”

“I am not a librarian.”

“What? Oh yes. Yes I know. Start at the bottom and work your way to the third basement, heh. Been that way for centuries. Maybe one day you too can look around you, at these ancient halls and dusty splendour and say, ‘These are my halls, this is my splendour. Creo.’” He giggled at himself like a small girl. “No, computers,” he said abruptly. “You’re a whiz?” He waved her CV. Angela had forgotten the nauseating migraine, the urge to palm her temples, which the prospect of building a new routine started in her. This had seemed the least disruptive, something like the ancient halls of the universities where she could no longer hide. It was altogether something different. This Freddy. This Unit. But strangely it didn’t tilt.

He had begun to speak again, telling her a story he said illustrated the challenges of fighting for progress in a centuries‑old institution. To her it just said librarians were cantankerous. Why did they speak so loud? Or was that him imitating them? Angela did not know if her own channelling, of Inez, had made her jumpy and flattered and relaxed all at once or if this was real. Decidedly odd. Was it Inez who liked him? (More than that.) Did a person such as Angela like him or did normal people like him too? That would be something. He ran a hand across the lank, prematurely white hair slicked with some kind of fragrant pomade. It sat up again. She grew aware he was expecting some reaction, head cocked. She raised her eyebrows and hoped it was enough. Knowing if it was Inez or Angela, acted or actor, imitation or real, animal, vegetable, mineral, was all too much. Certainly a brain was capable of more than you set out to do with it. But this—this?

She set it aside. She occupied herself with vector calculation predicting dust devils, wriggle and sway and extinction in the Royal Institute courtyard opposite Freddy’s office, wind direction and speed from her morning Bureau of Meteorology consultation. She had to remind herself to ask the practical questions from the hopeful list at the end of the book, on starting date and hours and so on, because he certainly wouldn’t have thought of any of it on his own. He gave a barking laugh and said, “Well we make a fine pair. Welcome to the team!”

Which thinking about Inez was funnier than he knew and she heehawed a bit too loudly and had to stop, the spell of Inez certainly broken now. As things turned out it was funnier than Angela knew as well. She had told him she could not start for thirteen days, but she didn’t really have a job keeping her from this place, so she was left without even advertisements to answer or disappointment to overcome. Although she did not feel elation, exactly, until well afterward, had to replay in the quiet of her wardrobe the two moments one could conclude he had offered her the job, until the emotion filled her to slapping pain, her reasonable consideration of the significance of her new position did not prevent joy, if this was it, slipping to just another green entry in her mental diary, beside the weather observations and instances of her father achieving verticality.

She was not disappointed at the thirteen days, taking comfort from a friendly metaphor. Does a river feel elation bouncing over rocks? It flows. She was her brother’s river. Her mother’s virtuous meadow guiding it. Her own fulfilment now, possibly, wherever it might lead. She shopped for work clothes and wrote up a new routine. She sat in her wardrobe beneath the three near‑identical suits persuading herself she would have the courage to change. (Making the shapes of the letters in her future log as carefully as she knew how. Protractor. Ruler. Stopping every two hours for a chocolate.) Angela had years ago found the courage to not‑change. So: symmetry.

She made good use of the time, doing her first dry run of an ordinary work day the first Monday, substituting a trip to their father’s for the work time at the Unit. She took the number 1b tram at 7:42, read Alan Turing on rare earth‑doping for the thirtieth time, counted and noted shop windows on the left side all the way into the city, then hopped the train to her dad’s, intending to make it back into town for the return tram trip (left side again), ready for timing dinner.

As she helped their dad from the floor to his chair, she filled him in and, as usual, he expressed puzzlement at her career. He had no idea what had happened to her jobs, what she was supposed to do for a living and what she had really done. The National Library of Victoria might give her access to expensive computers and network, unobserved. He did sense her returning excitement about the prospect, because she could not help but bounce about, arms a‑flap in what their mum had called “way too muchness” when Nigel had done it. It left him more perplexed.

He gave her his generous, if somewhat unfocused, smile—one she had often puzzled over—and said, “So is it well paid? I can’t imagine librarians get much, but it is such a prestigious—”

So she told him. It was solid information. She had looked up the rate on one of the public terminals in the Great Gallery on her way out and discovered Freddy’s offer had not been accidental, but at the bottom of the state Social Servant Pay Grade 3.3. Such decimals made no sense at all yet it was a pleasing descriptor and since, as she informed her father, the National Library’s Perennial staff were the worst remunerated librarians in the Federated Kingdom, the rate fell at the top of the interquartile range so her employers must have had a reason for choosing the sum. That Freddy had omitted it during the briefer‑than‑recommended bargaining troubled her, but she had come to expect mystery as she expected inexactitude from—practically everyone. Freddy excelled at both.

“Scone?” her dad asked. Their ritual.

As she nibbled around the edges of the blackberry jam carefully spread to the butter edges he sat silently watching, until the moment he understood he could interrupt and abruptly said:

“Your mother would have been pleased.”

Based on fact. Ethel Donohoe had been concerned about two things during her short decline. The other had been Angela’s potential, which she, stroking both soft cheeks, had called “infinite”. Well. In this position Angela might address the unmeasurable if not interminable something their mother had kept on about as well as the one their father never spoke of. It did not matter more because she was dead; it was the moral course, to please a father, if you could. “You do know I have been worried about you, down there on the rug. I am not completely immersed in my misery. I do think quite a bit actually. You and your—your ways were not always—not so. Not before poor Ethel passed away and since . . . ” His eyes shone, mildly beige as they went after noon. “You do not have to be this way. This will be good for you, Angela.”

“But I do,” Angela corrected him. It was right to honour their mother’s wishes, more so since Nigel’s disappearance. The wishes remained and somebody must address them. Their father could not.

“Volume,” he reminded her. “Ergs.”

“Thank you.” What he called shouting was an unnecessary expenditure of energy, that they both agreed.

As if to underscore her hope she ignored the rule of three and popped the remains of the scone into her mouth in one. Their father’s eyebrows rose, which she had learned meant he knew all too well of her adherence to the rule. For some time she chewed, deciding to devote as many chews to the single bit as she would have done to all three bites, looking around the room.

A perfectly preserved memory of their mother. Weird found‑object sculptures, photo of a coral gum tree, white teapot, votive candle, Portuguese lace doilies and antimacassars, tray with eucalyptus blossoms painted by Ethel. Pictures of him and Angela and Ethel and none at all of Nigel.

Across the living room window, a house spider tippy‑toed. Angela identified with such caution, as well as with its lack of awareness of specific danger in the form of a honeyeater clinging to the outside sill. Evidently the insectivore’s perception did not extend beyond the glass, an aspiration of hers, part of the truth which focussed her in this world. Though this did not extend to cannibalism in Angela’s case. Or eating flies. And while her chosen path frequently left her feeling she was clinging to a ledge, it was not with her feet, but these bony hands of hers. Not a real ledge of course. An excellent metaphor for suspension over fear.

At last she swallowed. She smoothed the new dress on her knees. “Father,” she said, “what I do works for me.” What could she say? That their mother’s certainty about Nigel had led her to her own? That following Nigel’s way down her own path was what she had to do? That the universe was predetermined since the Big Bang? What she had done, its joy and infernal mania of repetition and channelled time, itself prevented explanation. Somewhere she knew this, as she began to rock, fingers rising to her temples, mouth opening like a minnow (Tanichthys) in greasy water.

Far away, she was making a sound. That her father put his own hands to his own head, to his ears, told her she was loud.

She had decided this.

She could not help this.

She was doing it on purpose.

But what was its purpose?

And out the other end of her turn she popped. For some time they sat. The black and fulsome spider had only progressed inches, not even halfway across the sill. In fact, thirty‑seven body lengths, making it sixth biggest of the lineage reaching back to her childhood, to the moment she had taken up Nigel’s ways.

“I’m very happy for you, Nini. This job sounds just right. You enjoy it! OK?”

It was a peculiar request. She was not joining the National Library of Victoria to enjoy herself. But it was the right thing to do to try.

Tightly, she nodded.

“That’s good. That’s right. So—well, Mrs Pimlott’s finally gotten serious about retirement. I have no idea what I’ll do without her, but poor Eric has been waiting patiently for so long I can’t in conscience keep her a day more, now she’s decided. Would’ve been a job for you, eh, Nini? If you hadn’t landed such a plum position already.”

Angela just had to get up.

“Going already?” His eyes were doing something or other behind shaded spectacles. She had not been off, just leaping up to pace in a circle, but she took the chance. She was not going to bring up the intersection of Nigel’s way of sorting the world and her own—it had to be admitted—instinctive pursuit of the potential her mother had seen. One day they would speak. Right now there were too many other imperatives, and a prohibition by their father on speaking about his son. She apologised, but without a lie prepared. The right gestures with her head and hands, another apology, and he supplied: “Plenty to do before you start, eh?”

Which was quite literally true. Angela nodded and made for her bag. The honeyeater fluttered away from the window; the spider scurried to a dusty sill corner. She put up with her father’s kissing and made away into luminous springtime.

The White Library

© Paul Voermans

PS Publishing 2020

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