Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Ancora Io (Novel)

In the final days of the great libraries
Risks crowd around Betty's Library
And as one portal appears to close, others open.

(Writer's note: This book follows the story published novel Ancora Tu about the challenges of the future to our libraries and how Betty is dealing with them. It is being written here from time to time.)

The portal on the Jenolan River

A trek along the Jenolan River below the caves and beyond the Blue Lake will take you to places unimaginable. 
If you do step through this portal, a portal of ordinary natural power, you will never be able to go back to the world you knew. Not because of magic, nor the sharp smell of herbage all around nor the gin you drank last night. 
If you must go back, you will go back to a world changed. It will be a world where the colors are faded and the shadows are darker.
Jess (Chronicles of Eliza)

The black cat made its way by leaps and bounds up the vines leading to the mantle of the highest window of the old library. It hissed and a great raven left in a complaint of feathers and claws. The cat pressed its eye to the cold glass. From here it could see the old librarian at her desk on the first floor and the dark rooms of the town museum on the second floor. The cat reached out and pushed the glass.

Betty sat at her desk waiting for assistant librarian Thelma to arrive. She took a deep breath and reviewed her concerns one last time. Thelma was young, smart and... Betty frowned. Betty ran through the prosopography of all library assistants past and present. She clenched a fist and slammed it into a waiting hand, "She isn't ready!"

The dust behind her stirred and twisted into the air. A chill filled the old library. Books shuffled on the shelves. Upstairs, in the old museum, the floor settled softly. Betty listened for calm to be restored. Betty looked at her desk, immaculately clean. She mumbled, "Or maybe it is just that I am not ready for this."

She heard the shuffle of feet outside the Library and the practiced turn of a key.

The door opened, and Thelma gave her a wave and a cheery hello before moving to knock the snow off boots and to shake out her umbrella. Thelma forestalled Betty’s remonstrance, chirping without a hint of defensiveness, "I will clean it up. The landing was too muddy." She hung her jacket and ear muffs on the old wrought iron rack and went to find a mop.

Betty said to herself, "I just came in there myself, it wasn't muddy then." Young people these days are far too casual with the truth. And then, again, the doubts started.

Thelma said, "Ok, I have two hours. Sarah is babysitting for me. Would you like a coffee?"

Betty was caught off guard, "When did Sarah come home?” They looked at each other across the library for a moment, and Betty broke first, “Yes, I need a coffee."

Thelma shrugged, "I didn't know she had gone anywhere. She is a sweet girl, I trust her. Besides, she brought a friend, you know, Roddi from the Reading Group." There was the sound of cutlery, the biscuit tin being opened, and Thelma continued, “Roddi is helping her research stuff on the internet.”

Betty bit down the warning sitting at the back of her throat.

Betty said, "Thelma, I need to tell you something."

Thelma put two coasters on the desk and pulled up a chair, "I know already."

Betty said, "What? What do you know?"

Thelma said, "It's about the Arthur Conan Doyle exhibit."

Betty shook her head but could not help herself, "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And it is the Sherlock Holmes Exhibit. Remember that here we name exhibits after books not writers.” Like most librarians, Betty had a poor opinion of writers:  at best a necessary evil; at worst intrusive and self-serving.

Betty fought to restore self-control, but curiosity got in the way, “What about the exhibit?"

Thelma took a sip of the coffee, "Well, I think we should tell the truth about Doyle. The whole truth."

Betty suddenly wondered if two hours was going to be long enough. She said, "What?"

Thelma said, "Well, you know he was a doctor in the Anglo-Boer War."

Betty mumbled non-committedly.

Thelma continued, "He was at Bloemfontein, at the height of that city's typhoid fever epidemic. A thousand soldiers died there. He saw it happen and knew how to prevent it. Instead, he caved in. He could have easily prevented so many deaths."

Betty started to put her hand up, but Thelma rushed, "In the first World War, more people died from typhoid than on the battlefield. If Doyle had stood his ground, typhoid deaths would have been eliminated. We have to..."

There was a crash from upstairs, and the lights flickered. Out of sight, deep in the recesses of the library, the surface of a book shimmered. The book was covered by a pattern of tiny scales; regular, fascinating and frightening.

The two librarians looked at each other and froze. Silence returned. Betty shook her head, “Maybe just the wind banging one of the old windows.” Thelma looked at her, wondering about the disruption from a couple of weeks earlier. Seeing her chance, Thelma continued, "So many..."

There was another crash from upstairs. This time it was followed by the sickening splitting sound of wood. Betty jumped to her feet as the light died. She shuffled in her bag and drew out a large metal torch, the weapon of choice of most senior librarians. She switched the light on directly into Thelma's eyes.

Betty hissed, "No. I do not want to talk to you about the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle exhibit. Will you just listen to me for a moment!"

Thelma squinted and turned her head from the torch light, and said conversationally, "So, can I include a small section in the exhibit about him being the greatest killer in world history?"

Betty remembered Mabel's warning, delivered with a wavering voice, "I pray you never need to concern yourself with these, the ones that twist and turn in the dark." Betty whispered loudly, "Thelma! There might be something upstairs. I need you to believe me regardless of what you might think."

Thelma said with the confidence of youth, "You said it yourself, it's just the wind."

Betty started, “No…” but the lights flickered a couple of times, and then resumed with a dull golden glow.

Betty snapped off the torch light and wondered about the wisdom of climbing the stairs. She resumed her seat and thought. When Betty had become the chief librarian, she had done things that Mabel would never have allowed. Betty repressed her reservations about telling the towns folk that their favorite author was a mass killer. Instead, she turned to Thelma, "You can include an extract from a reputable source but only if you promise to believe everything I am about to tell you."

Thelma smiled and risked a happy cry, "You are the best!"

Betty caught a flash of light, near the ceiling.

Thelma followed her eyes, and took a swig of coffee, as a single page floated slowly onto Betty's Desk.

The page was old, hammered leather, frayed at the edges patterned with centuries of book worms. The script was old, amendments in the margins. The letters swam in front of them.

Thelma said comfortingly, "See, just the wind."

Betty reached for the page, and the words on the page swirled and became tangible.

Betty stared at the page in her hand.

Thelma put down her coffee and came to stand behind Betty, reading the single page over her shoulder.  She repeated the words aloud:

Vox (to his love): For you, I will break all the rules. I will risk incurring the displeasure of the emperor. I forgive you all the faults of time and distance. For that is the duty imposed by love.
Echo (Emperor): Love imposes that duty.

They were silent for a moment. Thelma returned to her seat, a thoughtful look on her shoulders, "It seems familiar, but I can not say I know it. Is there anything on the other side?"

Betty shook her eyes out of inaction and turned the page over. She said, "Nothing."

Thelma said, "It came from upstairs, probably the Town Museum. It may have been up there for years. The wind found it."  She glanced at her watch and smiled.

Betty nodded, "I wonder what other surprises might be waiting."

Thelma said, "We will deal with them, together. Old pages from forgotten books are no match for us." She laughed and then asked, "I am sorry, we have drifted a little. You were about to tell me something important."

Betty smoothed out the page and reaching into her second drawer, pulled out a paper sleeve and stored the page carefully and put it away out of sight.

Betty started, "Yes. Now, remember that you are going to believe everything I will tell you."

Thelma looked seriously, "Some bizarre things have been happening here."

Betty looked at her sharply; maybe she had underestimated Thelma, "What do you mean?"

Thelma leaned a little towards Betty, "Well, you know the Library Writers Club you asked me to manage a while back... I send you the minutes."

Betty frowned and then squashed a pang of guilt, "Thank you. I do not have time to look under every stone and appreciate you taking care of that one. But, perhaps I should have been more attentive, they are a difficult bunch of individuals."

Thelma said, "There are not too bad. We meet each second Monday at the Toni's Diner and, well, I listen to their stories and try to encourage them."

Betty said quickly, "Please, not too much encouragement. There are plenty of good books out there already. Look, I know that writers are a strange lot. But, what is particularly strange about this group."

Thelma said, "Well, I worry about them. They were all just muddling along. It was social. Well, a couple of meetings ago, a new man started coming along, Ged Richards. He is a local farmer and says he knows lots about books and writers and publishers."

"Tell me the strange bit, please."

"Well, he has been helping the others finish off their writings, even Jess. And, he is going to bring a well-known writer from the city next meeting."

"It sounds like you are doing a good job, rather than being strange."

"But Betty, my writers haven't got a clue."

Betty nodded, quietly approving of Thelma's intuition.

"And yet suddenly, they have manuscripts full of writing and plots and characters."

Betty picked up her ears and was about to probe a little deeper, but with a superhuman effort of will dragged the conversation back to the purpose at hand.

"Thelma, I think you are doing a good job. And we can talk a bit more about your writers tomorrow, but I need to talk to you now about something more important."

Thelma said, "I am sorry Betty, I have spent your evening talking about my problems. I appreciate your support of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle exhibit. It has all been a bit hectic the last while and..."

Betty held up her hand and smiled, "Thelma, that is what I need to talk to you about."

Silence filled the library. The books crowded to the edge of their shelves. The black cat leaned against the stairwell listening.

"Thelma, I am feeling very old."

Thelma drew in her breath. The dust behind Betty stirred and twisted into the air. A chill filled the old library. Books shuffled on the shelves. Upstairs, in the old museum, the floor settled softly.

"The last week was very hard for me. I need to talk to you about it. Then I think we should talk about my retirement."


With a squeal of rusty hinges, the black cat left the library. It slithered and backed its way down the wall, shrugging off a snowflake as it disappeared into the night.

Moments later it pushed its way into Toni's Diner and bent to a bowl of warm cream in the kitchen. Suddenly, its ear pricked up. Alert, it turned to look at the row of tables.

At the end Jess rose with a frown to meet Ray, "I am glad you came. Can I get you a hot chocolate?" He nodded, and she called out to Toni.

The black cat turned back to the cream, unsure. The cream tasted sour.

Jess said to Ray, "I have a problem."

Toni arrived and said, "Be with you in a moment. Just feeding the squad car, they had a car off the bridge tonight and are a bit shook up."

Ray took out a scrap of paper and made a note, saying, "Sec. Need to jot that down."

Jess didn't wait, "I have been trying..."

Ray finished and said, "You told me. But I have my book to write. I still have 900 words to write tonight and..."

Jess said, "No, I have a huge problem."

Ray said, "We have talked about this. You have to kill Bernice."

It was a little too loud, and the conversation in the diner dropped perceptibly, so he added loudly, "Bernice, the character in the book you are writing," He stressed Bernice and writing. Both of them waited for the diner to fill with normal disinterested conversation.

Jess said, "I can't do it. I..."

Ray sighed loudly, and whispered loudly, "We have been through this. Look. Killing a character is hard. It took me weeks to get the nerve to kill my first one. But a bit of practice and, you know, it gets effortless. Before you know it, you will be killing off whole families, little children, cities, kittens!"

Jess looked around worriedly and nodded silently at the police officers sitting a couple of tables down, and whispered loudly with a gentle kick under the table, "Don't say 'kill.'"

Ray said, cautiously, "You have to do this Jess!"

"But, but…"

Ray had had this conversation a couple of times, and his patience was wearing thin. He looked at the police officers, who had stopped eating. "Here. I will show you." Ray moved his hand in the air theatrically and hushed Jess. He brought out a piece of paper. "Watch."

The Black Cat silently jumped up on the seat back behind Jess and peered down at Ray.

Ray wrote, "Bob finished putting on his tie and picked up the flowers he had bought earlier." Ray explained to Jess, as an aside, "See, the flowers make him a character of value. When we kill him, the reader feels a loss." He nodded his head, silently asking her to agree.

Jess said, "No. No. You..."

Ray said, "It’s alright Jess. It will be all over shortly. It is just words." He continued to write a little faster with every word, "A block of ice fell onto a nearby wall. A dislodged brick shifted imperceptibly and lost grip of its neighbors.” He looked at her, and wrote one more sentence, “Fate hung in the balance."

Jess watched helplessly, eating her own words.

Ray wrote, "Just then, Ray slammed the door, and walked to his appointed fate."

Suddenly there was a crash outside the diner. The cat jumped onto the table, dislodging Jess's manuscript and for a moment chaos reigned. Toni stomped out of his kitchen with a soup ladle, opened the door and peered out into the night. Toni shook his head, "Careful when you leave tonight folks; another brick has fallen off that dratted wall." He called out to the police officers, "Can I put in a complaint about that?"

One of the officers called back, "Come on Toni. You know the drill. Call City Hall."

Jess called to him, "When you have a moment, can we have a couple of hot Chocolates please Toni?"

Toni turned and shot a smile at her then shook his head.

Jess and Ray finished getting the papers back into order, and Ray turned back to his exercise.

Ray held his hand above the page and froze. Written on the page, under his writing, in a narrow painful text, were six new words he had not written, "The brick fell after he passed"

Ray looked at Jess and then looked back at the writing, vaguely annoyed at the lack of a full stop. He looked at Jess again, and his eyes narrowed. Jess said, with a rush, "I have been trying to tell you."

Ray asked, pointedly, "Did you write that?" He pointed to words, which had been inexplicably joined by a couple more and some punctuation. It now read, "The brick fell after he passed, and just after he sat down" Still, there was no full stop. Ray suddenly felt cold.

Jess shook her head, "Listen to me." Ray shook his head and put his hands out. She pulled out pages from the top of her manuscript and put it on top of his note. "Look!"

She pointed to her writing and, just as he was about to remonstrate pointedly about the incomplete sentence now in his example death scene, he noticed the same narrow painful text on her page. A hasty thesis formed in his mind and he blustered, "What are you doing!"

Jess simply said, "I don't write like that. Something else has been writing in my story."


Jess said, "I sat down to write tonight. After my talk with you. I told myself that tonight was the night I was going to..." Her voice trailed off. "You know..." Her voice dropped to a whisper, "Kill Bernice."

There was a hush in the air.

Ray's eye caught the eye of one of the police officer a couple of tables away, who had a ham and tomato burrito in his mouth but still finding time to look at them with a little too much interest.

Ray's heartbeat got louder and started to pick up the pace, "Ok, ok. Let's not put the other people here off their food. Let me read what you wrote."

He started a couple of lines about the strange text, "This time Bernice had gone too far. She had slept with his girlfriend Meg. She had abducted his cat. And she had burnt their office to the ground. He had no options left. She was going to pay for all the bad things she had done. He gunned his car once more and waited for Bernice to leave the club."

Ray stopped at that point and looked up at Jess. They had been reading each other's novels for a while now, and Ray had thought he had an idea about Jess's plot and the character development in her story. They had spent a little time on Meg, the clothes she wore, the cigarettes she preferred, her weakness for Dutch licorice. But nothing hitherto had been mentioned about Bernice sleeping with Meg. Ray felt a bit blindsided by this development, and by the inexplicable lack of another full stop.

He started to point, but this time Jess got in first, loudly, "I have been trying to kill her all day! I blew up their office. I fixed her car so it would spin off the bridge! And now..."

The policeman standing next to her with her gun drawn said, "Now?"

To be continued...


A note on the language of Librarians. Librarians guard a lot of specialist words from the ravages of popular culture in what is called the Libris Onomasticon. It contains neat words like prosopography, epistolary, metaliterary, gravitas, sanctitas, and constantia  libertas that are just as deadly as nuclear warheads and are best kept hidden from the rest of the world.


Anonymous said...

Happy to see Betty's back. I've always thought her to be a brave woman. Looking forward to the next episode already.

NA (Not Augustine)

Peter Quinton said...

Hi NA :)

of all the characters i have met in writing, Betty is one of my favorite. She gives me a reason to sneak into libraries and observe the art of practicing librarians.
This particular renewed effort follows on from a request that i prepare briefings for government on the breakup of some of the larger tech companies, and specifically Facebook (a task i relish). The plot is a thinly veiled examination of some of the vulnerabilities of the shambolic and dangerously fragile information systems of the present world.
This might strike you as a little odd, but i find that the freedom of writing i often am able to explore pathways that become important :)