Janet O’Steen, Ireland’s foremost logodisciplinarian, tapped her pen meaningfully against the newspaper. A little way away from her, in an uncomfortable chair designed especially for public libraries to keep the homeless and illiterate from taking up valuable space for any length of time, an ill-shaven man with wild-eyes and a breathing problem looked nervously around. His eyes darted frantically, hunting for a librarian who might be sufficiently enraged by his appearance to come over and demand that he leave, but before he could find one, Janet spoke.
“This crossword is wrong,” she said, her pen tapping steadily against the paper. “The answer to A work of outstanding nautical fiction featuring a man and a surprisingly big fish is clearly Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, yet the grid provides space for only eight letters and claims – hah! – that the answer has only two words.”
“I can’t read, mum,” said the ill-shaven man, his eyes now firmly downcast and his hands, clad in filthy fingerless woollen gloves clutching one another as though trying to pull themselves to pieces.
“When you have to read rubbish like this,” she shook the paper at him and he flinched back in his seat, “you should be grateful you can’t read! I can’t believe that they charge money to read this thing, it’s quite frankly communist composting paper and nothing more! You should hear what they had to say about my book Bride of Prejudice when they reviewed it.”
The ill-shaven man looked truly terrified after a couple of seconds, when he realised that Janet had said ‘hear’ and not ‘read’ and that she might actually intend to the read the review to him, undoubtedly with added commentary from the author. And while there were surely people who would be thrilled to get such a reading, he had been on the end of several of Janet’s harrangues over the past few weeks and was desperate not to have to sit through another.
“I’ll find it,” said Janet, her gripe with the crossword now forgotten. “Just you sit still there, I know it’s in the coffee section somewhere, because the illiterates who put this thing together wouldn’t know a book if it bit them, so it’s far too much to hope that they have a book review section. Hah! Heaven forfend! What is the matter with you?” She stopped rustling the pages of the paper and stared at her reluctant audience. The ill-shaven man had decided to throw away any dignity he had had left and was faking a heart-attack. His hands clawed at his throat, and his dirty, torn fingernails were already raising blood, while he enthusiastically choked and gagged. His eyes bulged from his face and his feet drummed on the floor. When he finally slid off his chair and rolled from side to side half-under the reading desk, a librarian came over, summoned from her cubicle of quiet book-repair, and looked first at Janet and then at him.
“What have you done?” she said to Janet, her tone of stern reproof making it clear that she felt Janet was guilty.
“I offered to read to him from this paper,” said Janet, waving the crumpled edition at her. “I’m not at all surprised that he’s taken ill. I would too, were I not accustomed to the drivel they print on these pages.”
“You’re not to read to the patrons,” said the librarian in the aggrieved tones of someone who’s had to say the same thing a lot. “And you’re not to fill the crossword in in pen, it’s not your paper. It’s the library’s. Photocopy it like anybody else and fill in your photocopy.”
“No-one else would want to read it,” said Janet, a little hotly. “And the crossword is appallingly wrong. The setter has no clue what a decent book is, let alone how to write proper clues. A five-year old could solve these, if the setter had only known the answers he was asking for.”
The librarian went a little cross-eyed as she tried to work out what exactly Janet was trying to say and then gave up. She bent down and poked the still-thrashing ill-shaven man.
“Get out,” she said. “Go on, off with you, or I’ll let this nice lady read to you again.” He leapt up with commendable agility for someone in the throes of dying, and departed the library with a grateful smile on his lips.
“Be quiet,” said the librarian to Janet. “Or I’ll throw you out too.”
“You can’t throw me out!” Janet was scandalised. “I wrote some of the books you have in this library!”
“Doesn’t matter,” said the librarian. “There are some books that libraries are improved by not having. That paper you’re so cheerfully turning into a crumpled mess that no-one else will be able to read put it rather well in a recent review: ‘any library would be enhanced by the absence of books by this author’.”
“They were reviewing my book!” Janet turned pinkish purple with shocked outrage and finally let go of the paper, which slid off the reading desk and onto the floor.
“Well then,” said the librarian unfeelingly. “Be quiet or I’ll throw your books out instead.” Janet’s mouth opened and closed like a goldfish with Alzheimer’s. “Bear in mind,” said the librarian turning away now that she’d restored order to the library, “that at the end of that review the reviewer opined that it would be a tragedy if society allowed the author to die a natural death.”
Janet squeaked, the most she could manage with her throat so constricted with rage.
“That reviewer died, you know,” said another voice, this from a middle-aged woman standing at the nearest shelves, seemingly waiting while he son picked out novels by William Burroughes. The librarian arched an eyebrow, and the woman continued, “It was in the papers – not that one, mind you, far too gruesome for that – she was beaten to death with the dug-up remains of her own grandmother.” The librarian halted in her tracks, staring disbelievingly. “Oh yes,” said the woman. “Macabre and mysterious! The police are saying as they think it was a woman who did it, but there’s no motive. Except, I suppose, if you’d got a bad review.”
“That’s preposterous!” said Janet quickly. “No author would bludgeon an interviewer to death, and especially not with her grandmother’s shin bone. I mean, how would they find out where the evil old biddy was buried in the first place?”
“Interviewer?” said the librarian looking puzzled.
“Shin bone?” asked the middle-aged woman, looking gleeful. “Ooh, I hadn’t heard that detail!”
“I meant reviewer,” said Janet, recovering herself. “And the shin bone… well, that’s a Mark Twain quote isn’t it? About wanting to beat someone over their head with their own shin-bone. Though I don’t know how he’d do it, they’re far too fragile. Upper leg’s the bone you want, the hip joint at the top has a nice heft to it.”
She paused, aware that everybody nearby was now looking at her.
“Research,” she said, a little hopefully. “For… for my new book. I’ve just started writing it.”
“What’s it about?” asked the librarian. Her face had relaxed a little. “I read Clementsy a while back about the murderous meth addicts.”
“That was a classic love story!” Janet snapped. “Um, the new one, is, um, well, I don’t like to talk–“
“Oh come on,” said the middle-aged woman’s son, smiling. “You’ve just told us all about researching beating people to death with their own limbs, I think you have to tell us what the new book is about now. Zombies?”
“Why is it always zombies with you?” asked his mother. “If it’s not weird novels that don’t make any sense when you read them, it’s zombies.”
“Er, yes,” said Janet, thinking hard. “It’s going to be… a revisit… of Sense and Sensitivity… but with zombies!”
“Which one was Sense and Sensitivity?” asked the middle-aged woman. She screwed her face up as she tried to remember.
“The one about the murderous sisters who kept their mother’s remains in the bath,” said the librarian who’d read them all.
“That was a study of traditional family values!” Janet looked more outraged than before.
“And matricide,” said the librarian. “I’ve read all your books, you’ve never met a mother you wouldn’t murder, have you?”
“Oh my!” said the middle-aged woman stepping smartly behind her son, who looked unimpressed.
“The alleged issues regarding the strong female characters in my books have been discussed,” said Janet, hoping they’d infer “from serious works of literary criticism” from her unfinished sentence.
“On the Jeremy Kyle show,” said the librarian. “And in several of the trashier celebrity gossip magazines.
“But they’ve been discussed.”
The librarian and Janet glared at each other like cats on opposite sides of a mesh fence. Slowly, without breaking their staring match, Janet muttered, “I should be getting on, zombies won’t rise from the grave and write about themselves.”
“I’ve got books to shelve,” said the librarian equally slowly. Without actually agreeing it, they averted their gazes at the same time, and then pretended that the other wasn’t there.