The Student's Tale 

'Strange you should mention that’, said the student I found ready for a rest, a stretch and a chat in the reference section, ‘This is a remarkably small village to qualify for a shiny new library. As it happens, I was one of those responsible for setting it up. Let me tell you all about it.’

She was one of those soft and freckled red-headed girls with skin so pure you feel you can see bones as well as veins in the hollow of her shoulders. The cotton singlet she was wearing showed this to fine advantage, and I had been wondering, as one does, if this fascinating translucency extended to areas not currently visible. I could have listened to her all day, and also – indeed, preferably – all night. We adjourned to the Bakehouse Tea Rooms.

‘It was like this, you see. When the University opened in Town, it started off – they always do, you know – with far more students than they’d ever bargained for; and there was a big problem about us not all having places to live. About two-thirds of the students had rooms on campus, a few hundred had digs in town; but it’s not all that big a town, really, and there were about fifty of us who had absolutely nowhere. So we camped in the Administration Offices.’

I blinked and shook my head. She had been leaning towards me while she spoke, and my attention had been entirely concentrated. ‘Sorry’, I said, ‘You camped where?’

‘In the Administration Offices. I spent three nights on the Vice-Chancellor’s desk.’

‘Didn’t he mind? I mean, I can see why he might not, but...’

‘Silly. Of course he minded. He was supposed to. It was after the papers printed a picture of me sleeping on his desk that we got some action. I think his wife must have seen it.’

‘As a matter of interest, what were you wearing?’

‘Oh, just a nightie. Anyway, never mind that, the point is, he had a very rich friend who owned a lot of local farms, and heaps of them had empty cottages because of mechanisation on the farms, you see, and there were ten of them in this village and here we are. It all worked out perfectly. It’s ten miles out of town, but we’re allowed to use the school bus, and the rent’s not enormous and we get all this fresh air and eggs and so on.’

‘It explains your complexion. But what has that to do with the Library?’

‘Well, there wasn’t one. Not in the village, and the school bus times don’t let us stay in town for the evenings, and it’s hard to get in at weekends. One or two plutocrats have cars, but not enough by any means. It meant humping books to and fro all the time, and we couldn’t borrow reference books, not even dictionaries. So we wrote to the County Council and said, how about a village library?’

‘And they gave you one? What sort of a picture did you get in the papers this time?’

‘Oh, they refused, of course. Even when I told them who we were, they said it wasn’t economically viable. Well, I ask you, when was a Library ever economically viable? It’s no argument at all. And there we were, humping great heaps of books around. I used to have thirty out at a time sometimes, and you couldn’t avoid the occasional fine. Oh, it made me so angry.’

You could tell it did. She was breathing harder, making delicious little roundnesses slide up and down under the stretched cotton. If I had been Chairman of the County Council, I would have built her a Library in marble and mahogany, with glass walls and twin domes reflected in a deep blue lake.

‘Are you listening? You’re looking straight in my eyes, but sort of far away.’

‘It’s the eyes that do it.’ That was where I’d got the blue lake, of course. I switched my gaze to her mouth, then realized that this was a false move if attention to her narrative was my aim.

‘Sorry. It made you angry. I can well believe it. So what was the next move?’

‘We held a meeting. A council of war. In the Village Hall. All fifty of us turned up, with boyfriends and girlfriends...’

‘How many boyfriends did you bring?’

‘Oh, heaps. Never mind how many. Listen. Because we couldn’t think of anything to persuade the Council we were serious, until Jenny had the Big Idea.’

‘Who’s Jenny?’

‘Oh, she’s left now, she was on a three-year course. I do four, because of studying languages. I was in Italy all last year. Anyway, Jenny suddenly jumped up and said, "I’ve got it!", and when we’d done all the old jokes, she said, "No, but listen, think about the borrowing system at the Town Library." So we all thought about it. At the time, they had an old computer system that allowed you to take out six books at any one time. If you came back the next day you could have another six books, and six the next day and so on. You could even go several times a day as it turned out, and the computer didn’t mind how many books you took out altogether; all that mattered was that each book had to be brought back within three weeks. We explained all this to each other, and then Jenny said, "Well, that’s it then. We can clean them out." It was as simple as that. D’you see?’

‘Incidentally’, I put in at this point, ‘and purely as a matter of interest, what make of toothpaste do you use?’ Her teeth were as opalescent as her skin, and her breath was as fresh as a cornfield. The marble shelves of the library I was building for here were entered through doors of the softest coral.

She ignored the inquiry about toothpaste. ‘A group of us went down to the Town Library the next day and sussed it out. There were ninety thousand books, and we reckoned that what with fifty of us, and friends, and friends of friends, and classmates and acquaintances and so on, we could have maybe a thousand helpers. So we sent a final demand to the County Council. Either we got a promise of a branch library in the village, or the library service would be seriously disrupted. I went and told the Chairman myself.’

‘With those lips?’

‘With these very lips. And this tongue. Careful!’

We mopped up most of the tea with our napkins, and the resentful waitress came and dealt with the rest, scolding and grumbling under her breath because she no longer had freckles on her legs, and white patches at the corners of the kneecaps where the firm bone showed through the waxen skin. We left the tea-rooms and went out into the sunlight, and took our conversation down the lane to the canal bank where the willows are. From time to time a little fish would jump a short way out of the water, call me a lucky sod in fluent trout, and fall, splash, back in. In the open it was the hair that drew the attention.

‘Now you’re looking over the top of my head’, she complained, ‘and did you know that your left eyebrow goes up in the middle?’

I didn't.

‘Well, anyway, I saw the Chairman myself, and he was most scathing. "You’re not going to camp in the Library", he said, "It’s not University property and we can get students out fast. Who d’you think employs the Police force round here?" And, do you know, he’d got the Chief Constable with him. "Take a good look at her", he says, "That’s the notorious Abigail Horncastle, that is. She puts a foot wrong, you arrest her." ’

‘The beast. Fancy calling you notorious. And you with a name like Abigail. I expect you were angry again.’

‘Abbie. Well, yes. Mostly, I was embarrassed. I can remember blushing, and the pair of them laughed. I feel all hot just remembering it.’

She looked hot. Her blush was a wonderful thing. It rose from the depths of her singlet, mantled her shoulders and darkened the freckles even on her nose. I wished with all my heart I had been with it when it started. ‘Do you blush all over?’, I asked, incautiously.

‘Pretty much. I was in the bathroom once and somebody came in who shouldn’t have. There’s a big mirror in there, and everything I could see was blushing.’

‘Perhaps I could help you verify the rest.’

‘Not just now, I’m telling you about the Library. We started the very next day. I went in first and took out six books, then Jenny took six, and at the end of the first day we had just under six thousand. After that it kind of snowballed. The assistants, even, got into the spirit of the thing, and they could hardly count books for giggling. We left the romantic novels to the last, and the old ducks who borrow those joined in after a week. In a fortnight we’d done it.’

‘You’d emptied the library?’

‘You’re paying attention now. I’m not sure whether that’s more worrying, or less.’

‘It’s your voice. I’m trying to work out where I’ve heard something like it before.’

‘And I thought you were interested in what I was saying.’

‘I am, I am.’ She was looking down at me, and a small curl fell across her forehead. I reached up and put it back in place, and there was one of those moments when every secret thought, every shade of feeling, every knowledge of the heart flowed both up and down my arm, and melted with a stab of flame a small, smooth hole in my diaphragm.

‘Mine, too’, she said, and then shook her head so that the curl flew back, and she went on with her story.

‘It looked fabulous, the library empty. We found a press photographer who was a member, and it made one of the Nationals. All those rows and rows of shelves with nothing on them but a bit of dust. The cleaners were glad of the chance to get it bottomed for the first time since Andrew Carnegie. But Councillor Briggs, he sat tight and said nuffin.’

‘Like Brer Rabbit?’

‘More like Brer Fox. He wouldn’t meet us, he wouldn’t talk to us, he wouldn’t give a statement to the press. Even the staff at the library didn’t hear from him. For a whole week, nuffin. A little higher, please.’

At this point I realised that I had been stroking her back. Between her shoulder-blades was soft and cool. I was intrigued that her skin did not feel like silk. It was smoother than that, and fresher, with the faintest golden down that made it glow against the golden afternoon sun through the dappled shade of the willow tree. But the story was beginning to intrigue me, too.

‘And after a week?’

‘Still nuffin for three days; and then the cards started coming. He had them all sent to me. Every one of them. When I told him they weren’t all mine, he said ‘Qui facit per aliam facit per se’. I looked it up, and he had a point. They were all mine.’

‘What were? What were the cards about?’

‘Well, the fines, stupid. A penny a day per book. Ten pounds the first day, I remember, than another thirty the second day, seventy the third, and after that it started to get ridiculous. He let it go on for a week before he agreed to talk to us. By that time we – no, I – owed him a whole year’s grant. Stop laughing, it was awful.’

‘Deh vieni’, I said.


‘Not who, you’re supposed to be the Italian expert, it’s a song. In the last act of The Marriage of Figaro. Susanna’s in the garden, and she’s teasing Figaro. She pretends that she’s waiting for another lover, and she sings Come and don’t delay, beautiful joy; and she sings it seriously, as if she meant it; but all the time an oboe is singing with her, and it has a sort of mocking chuckle in its voice so you can’t ever take it too seriously.’


‘And that’s where I’ve heard your voice before. Moonlight and love in a summer garden. Deh vieni, non tardar, o gioia bella.’

‘Forse questa sera, caro.’

‘Is that another song?’

‘It’s another story altogether. Where was I?’

‘You were up to your amazingly beautiful ears in debt to the County Council.’

‘Oh, I was. And I was finally allowed to talk to Councillor Briggs. I tried to put a brave face on it. "When do we get a village library?", I asked. And do you know, he got out a calculator and did a few sums. "In about sixteen weeks", he said, "you should just about be finished paying for it." ’

‘Oh, cwumbs. What did you do?’

‘What would you have done? I caved in. I threw in the towel. After half an hour, we had a compromise. If I returned all the books forthwith, disbanded the protest group, stopped demanding a village library and promised never to campaign for anything ever again in my student career, he’d be prepared to offer an amnesty for the fines.’

‘Wow. You call that a compromise?’

He did. Made me feel I’d got off lightly.’

‘You poor darling.’

‘Mmm. If that’s your version of sympathy, you may do it again. Frequently.’

I complied with her request. The shadow of the willow tree was silver moonlight, and our own shadows on the returning road a single shadow, when I remembered the library. ‘You got the place in the end though, didn’t you? Who persuaded the Council?’

‘Oh, that was the power of the press. When I got home after that awful meeting, and after I’d soaked at least three pillows, the Editor of the national paper rang, the one that printed the story. Readers had been sending letters all week, and every letter seemed to contain a cheque, and the paper’s owner matched the contributions, and what we have in the village – you should have noticed in the first place – is a private library. You see, it was like the spare cottages. It all worked out just right in the end. Things usually do.’

And that’s all there is to the student’s story, for the moment. Oh, except that, yes, I am happy to report, the blush is universal.