A short story from #12NOW writer Claire Savage, about the joys of reading, reclamation, and a little too much escapism…
As the door clicked shut, Beryl felt a thrill race through her, as if she’d just stepped onto a fairground ride.
Today, she was Hannah Greene—spy, informant, clandestine femme fatale. She shook off Beryl, slick as a snake slipping off its old skin, and stepped into the cat-suit clad Hannah. Of course, Hannah wasn’t really wearing a cat-suit. She had to blend in. But Beryl liked to think that she might be wearing one underneath her humdrum, ‘one of the hive’ ensemble.
Today, Beryl was Hannah and right now, Hannah was a bee—buzzing beautifully amongst all the other drones while it served her, but aiming straight for the queen.
Her heels clicked across the tarmac as she severed ties with her mobile haven and slid seamlessly into a melee of unknown characters. She was soon surrounded by office workers and bankers and—well, who knew what else? People zipping in and out of each other’s way, mumbling into their hands, or lost in the rhythm of thrashing music plugged into oily ears.
Hannah Greene strode forward with head held high and a glint in her eye.
A tall, thin man with a camera and an auburn beard stole a single shot of Hannah Greene as she cut through the crowd. Her white-blond ponytail pointed like a dagger down her back; her side profile thin as a page, barring the extended red-tipped toe of her high-heeled shoe.
Hannah quickened her pace as she approached the glass-fronted façade of the office block, joining the small group of sales men and women with drooping eyes and smudged make-up as they resigned themselves to another day of paper-chasing.
“Which floor for the CEO?” she asked a puffy-faced woman with bulging bags under her eyes.
Hannah nodded at the woman when she got off on second, then watched as the light showed ‘3’ and then ‘4’.
The office was big and airy and empty. Hannah took what documents she could and then melted into the background once more as she retraced her steps back to the mobile. As soon as she was safely inside, she kicked off her red-tipped heels and loosened her hair, letting it fall lightly around her shoulders.
Back to Beryl.
She took down the latest thriller she’d been reading from the row of shelves which lined the belly of her home, and smiled.
“Stolen papers—check,” she said, as if the author was waiting to hear of her success on that front.
“A job well done, I’d say. And people say fiction is fiction and could never happen in real life!”
Beryl knew better.
So far, she’d hijacked a car, stolen lingerie from a department store, thrown a drink over an unsuspecting (and entirely innocent) waiter, and stalked a man with a briefcase through the city. Which was just for starters. She’d actually lost track of everything she’d accomplished to date, but she only had to look at the titles decorating her walls to remember her misadventures.
Life was boring for Beryl—well, Jayne Drury—but, Drury plus Jayne made for nothing but dreary in Beryl’s opinion, so when she’d come of age, she’d changed it. She’d left home, refashioned herself as Beryl, and had travelled the country in her precious mobile library van ever since. And it was perfect.
Recently, however, she’d moved from mainstream fiction into grittier novels, which made her challenges increasingly tricky—and admittedly more exciting—to complete. For what could be more thrilling than re-enacting pivotal scenes from her favourite books? Even run-of-the-mill scenes were fun, their mundaneness serving as a sort of temper against the more risqué plots.
Which today, had meant stealing documents from an office. As a spy.
Except, being a spy hadn’t been quite as interesting as Beryl had hoped, so she would have to be more selective in her next book choice. Her eyes strayed to the children’s section of her mobile library, flicking over the rainbow spines for inspiration.
She’d never attempted any misdemeanours from her children’s collection. Which might seem odd to anyone watching—and Beryl was always sure that someone was, somewhere—but oddly enough, her favourite books were the books that frightened her most.
Beryl had no qualms about stealing or hijacking or spying or being rude, but pretending to be on a magical quest, or training dragons, or looking for enchanted objects just wasn’t something she was willing to emulate. She loved those stories, but she didn’t want to make them real.
“Anyway, I can steal something easily enough,” she muttered, “but I can’t magic up an enchanted ring or a dragon or a… a… anything like that!”
Beryl often spoke to herself and it was always quite sharply.
She dropped down onto her favourite, well, her only armchair, which just so happened to be squeezed in between children’s books and magical realism books and, as she always found herself doing when books were within sniffing distance, Beryl absentmindedly plucked one from the shelf. Children’s section.
It was a book she didn’t recall buying, stealing or borrowing. (Beryl had occasional book buddies whom she met up with from time to time to discuss the latest thriller or to do swaps with. She also gave creative writing classes when the notion took her—people didn’t seem to mind forking out more for the honour of writing in her mobile library rather than the local community hall, and Beryl always made sure to welcome such knock-kneed and bespectacled groups with a pot of fresh tea and some crumbling lemon cake).
The title of this stowaway was Book Eating Girl, which Beryl thought rather inadequate.
“The Book Eating Girl would be better,” she mused, “although it sounds a bit odd even like that—and even for me.”
Nevertheless, Beryl turned to read the blurb but found that just like the faded red front, this cover was unadorned. The only imprint was the title:
written in gold lettering and stacked like a chimney on the front cover. It reminded her more of one of the stuffy textbooks she had to read for her part-time psychology course than a compelling novel, but Beryl liked to give every book its chance, so she opened it.
The book was blank.
Beryl flicked through the pages, but they were all the same. All empty of ink—just pallid pages devoid of lines or embellishment.
“But why would a notebook—if that’s what it is—have a title?”
She looked for a publisher’s name. There was none. No publication date, no type of any kind, which was unusual but, thought Beryl, obviously indicative of a dud. She threw the book onto the little coffee table squatting on fat legs in front of her and jumped as the book immediately flung open its cover and shook out its pages.
She saw two words written on the sickly-white paper.
Beryl frowned. And then she realised the book must have been left for her by one of her well-meaning writing group members.
“What do they expect me to do—write my life story?”
She flipped the book closed with her foot and promptly forgot all about it as she busied herself with finding an actual book to read, hoping it would be one with something interesting in it that she could recreate. She was in the mood for more daring.
At around half-past eleven that night, however, Beryl awoke from a fitful doze and, in that hazy state of being half-awake and half still asleep, she picked up her pen and she picked up the book and she began to write.
I am Beryl, she wrote, the letters large and sprawling.
I live in a mobile library and by day I often dress up and re-create characters and scenes from my favourite books. At night, I study psychology and drink a lot of coffee and sometimes herbal tea. I love to read—I love to write—and I teach creative writing classes to anyone gullible enough to accept tuition from me.
I surround myself with stories. I feed on them. Words are my fuel. How did I reach this point? Well…
And here Beryl stopped writing and read over what she had scribbled down.
“It looks as if a kid wrote that,” she muttered, but she found herself putting pen to paper again nonetheless.
Into the night, Beryl wrote. She wrote about growing up in the country—of adventures in her flowery red dress—picking horse chestnuts and gooseberries; running from disgruntled cows. She wrote of her discovery of magical kingdoms and heroes and villains as her life-long relationship with books began; of writing her first story inspired by her favourite novel—how she tried desperately to recreate the exciting elements of the characters’ lives and bring some of that golden adventure into her own.
She recalled revising for difficult exams (which she aced), reading by torchlight and stealing chocolate biscuits from the larder. Listening in to adult conversations and finally, as she left school, rebelling, and shunning traditional academic life for one in a mobile library.
She wrote about receiving her money at 18, and about the resigned looks her guardians gave her when they realised they could legally do nothing to prevent her from accessing her inheritance; hoping, she supposed, that she wouldn’t end up frittering it away.
Beryl wrote on.
About her books. Her psychology. Her bookish gallivanting and finally, she realised, about her running away.
After hours of non-stop writing, Beryl’s hand trembled as she clutched the pen, poised, patient for more, over the page. Her arm ached, but her mind felt infinitely more relaxed. She had emptied her life down a rabbit hole and it felt good—as any psychology expert would confirm.
The dull ache in her writing arm soon turned to a tingling sensation—as if scores of little needles were hopping on her skin. Her fingers felt thin as reeds and she fluttered them, as if she was playing an invisible piano. As she did so, the air around them seemed to blur a little.
It was late—Beryl had no idea how late—so she set the pen and the book aside and decided it really was now time for bed.
Bed was a handy little camper-type affair, and was a lot more comfortable than it looked. She yawned and rubbed her eyes. The book lay open on the table before her and she reached to close it. She picked up the pen instead, however, as if her hand had a mind of its own. Her fingers hurt, the skin red from the pressure of the pen over the past few hours, and yet—Beryl began to write again.
As she scribbled on, Beryl stopped looking at the words flowing from the pen and redirected her gaze to her hand. Moving quite independently, her writing hand looked as it might if Beryl had been viewing it underwater. The shape of it was blurred and it moved slowly, rhythmically, like a fish propelling itself through a river.
She looked, then, to see what it was writing, and realised there was no longer black ink coming from the nib, but a stream of multi-coloured fluid which sunk into the page and dried away to nothing. Beryl tried to release the pen, but saw with numbed panic that what she had thought was the pen was in fact her own fingers dripping rainbow words into the book.
And still her hand wrote.
She tried to move from the chair, but it was as if she was confined in a glass box. Beryl felt cold, smooth space surround her—an invisible embrace holding her prisoner. Her fingers were wearing away now, the tips erasing like rubber as the writing went on. A silent scream squatted in her throat, while her eyes were locked in defiance upon her rapidly disappearing digits.
Her hand flew now over the page, gathering momentum and flicking page after page as it filled with fleshy words and Beryl’s fingers became a stumpy hand, which became a pointed tip of an arm.
And then, she reached the last page.
Thick tears that refused to fall blurred Beryl’s vision as a small papery whirlpool started to spin on that piece of paper. When it was the width of the page, Beryl felt it tug on her arm point and a translucent tear fell to its death as she watched her arm sink slowly into the hole, followed by her shoulder; followed by Beryl herself, head-first.
When Beryl came to, she realised her imagination must have taken the run of her. She looked at her hand. Intact.
She heard a voice grumbling nearby. It must have woken her and any wonder, she realised—the person seemed to be in her mobile library! Beryl was suddenly aware that she couldn’t see her mobile library. She could see her hand, but the space around her was completely white. She stood up, panicked, spinning 360 degrees, but all she saw was white space.
She spun again and this time, caught sight of a spot of black from the corner of her eye. She raced to where she thought it was and crouched down to see a small, round door. She pushed it eagerly and squeezed through, almost falling off a chalky ledge.
“What!” she gasped, steadying herself against black netting which showed, at last, the inside of her mobile library. Everything was out of proportion though, and looked misshapen and wrong. A woman’s face, large and round as Big Ben, peered in at her.
Beryl climbed onto the netting, calling for help, but it was obvious the woman couldn’t hear her, or indeed, see her. After a few seconds the woman disappeared, and Beryl climbed off the netting and leaned back against the wall. She studied the black swirls and crosses, wondering how on earth she could get through it, then slowly realised what she was looking at.
“It’s not netting—it’s letters!” she exclaimed. “What’s going on here?!”
It was true—what Beryl had thought to be netting was in fact letter after letter of joined-up handwriting, and she was trapped behind it.
Beryl pinched herself, closed her eyes and opened them again, then pinched herself again. She heard the woman in her mobile library.
“Says in the book she wanted to go travelling,” she said. “Well, there’s travelling and then there’s disappearing for weeks on end! Just like her mother that one, although who knows what became of her? Fancy photographer more interested in the lives of renegades than her own abandoned daughter? And now look. Gone! Just like her! You want to have a read of this book!”
Beryl stumbled as her book was thrown into waiting hands. Everything went black.
“She acts out scenes from novels! On her own! In public!”
The disbelief and incredulous tone of the woman’s voice made Beryl’s eyes narrow and her teeth grind. Who was she anyway? And—more to the point—who was she with?
“We’ll hold onto this anyway,” said the other voice, also a woman’s, also unknown. “Might help to explain a few things.”
Beryl felt herself being tidied into a bag. She tried to hear more, but all that came through were mumbles and soon, she fell asleep.
‘The Mobile Librarian’ was originally published in The Lonely Crowd Journal.