‘Reserve?’ Donald raised an eyebrow, bemused. ‘Some books are not kept out, you know. ’ ‘But it’s only poetry. ’ The young librarian laughed. ‘It doesn’t mean it’s pervy.
There’s just not enough room for everything on the shelves.’ She consulted a little card taped to the desk. ‘If I call now, it should be here on Wednesday. ’
Donald frowned and adjusted his cap; he pulled on a pair of red and yellow knitted gloves. ‘No, don’t bother. I’ll go down there now and ask for it myself. Thank you.’
Donald was a short, dumpy man whose coat was much too big for him. It had belonged to his father. Both his parents had died in the early Thatcher years and he had drifted down to London from Luton with not much more than a bag of old clothes. He had no other family. His father used to talk of an uncle of his who also had come to Britain from Ceylon, like Donald and his parents, but that had been long before the Second World War; he had never kept in touch. As Donald grew older, he became more and more obsessed with information about anyone who could be regarded as a predecessor from the island of his forebears.
Recently he had been on the trail of a poet. He had first caught sight of him in a book about Leonard Woolf; a passing reference to a young Ceylonese poet who had visited the Woolfs in Bloomsbury after the Hogarth Press had reissued The Village in the Jungle, the novel Leonard had written after his experience of Ceylon. Donald had first assumed the visitor was Tambimuttu, poet and progressive publisher who was the one of the first to celebrate the new diversity of English poetry. But then he’d discovered that Tambimuttu had arrived in London only in 1938, six years after the reported meeting. Donald had scoured through all the accounts of the 1920s and 1930s he could find, but there was only one other mention of the man. He had been noticed at a bohemian gathering, a glass of cider in his hand, mocking Mr Eliot. ‘Tcha, bad move,’ Donald had clucked and turned the page. The next sentence simply stated that this fine young poet had gone on to produce one pamphlet — four leaves, seven poems — before disappearing from the scene. Nothing more. No name, no title for the pamphlet, no clue to what had happened. Only that this promising voice had faded away. After that just one minor footnote: there had been a poem apparently dedicated to this Ceylonese writer by a Hornsey poet briefly in the limelight two decades later.
Donald himself was not a poet, although he had flirted with the idea as a young man. To recollect in tranquillity was something he had been prepared to do when he first moved to London. After a few false starts, he had ended up better employed in the downstairs registry of a welfare organisation
ordering files from H to P. He had two colleagues dealing with the rest of the alphabet and a boss who drank vodka out of a mug. Donald proved to be a wizard at finding any scrap of paper he filed, but promotion eluded him. Management, he was told after ten years in the department, required more than a prodigious memory and a penchant for paper.
After the initial disappointment of this news, back in 1993, Donald had accepted his limitations and devoted all of his spare time to the preservation of his personal heritage. A man has to find his own place in the scheme of things, he told himself, and began to hoard facts and artefacts from Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, good and bad. His tiny flat on the Archway Road slowly turned into a museum crammed with wooden curios, brassware, files of cuttings and piles of second-hand books of colonial history retrieved from charity shops and bric-a-brac stalls all over London.
On this Saturday morning, it was a little gusty outside the small branch library on Shepherd’s Hill. The wind hadn’t quite begun to howl as it was doing from Yeovil to Basingstoke, denuding fat oaks and toppling chimney pots, but Donald noticed how it lifted the lids off the bins down the road. He looped his scarf over his cap to keep it in place and made a knot around his neck. He liked his cap – £3.50 from Marker’s in Holloway – and he didn’t want to lose it.
At the gate, he looked cautiously both ways before stepping out on to the pavement. The last time he had left the library he had been too engrossed in Keynesian economic theory and had
blundered into the path of a speeding four-year-old from the nearby community centre. There had been no serious damage but the nap of his suede shoes had not recovered. This time there were no vehicles. Only Janice Conway who was having trouble folding her baby’s buggy. The hood billowed like a sail as the wind caught it. Her car door banged shut. ‘Oh, bugger, ’ she swore before she saw Donald.
‘It’s a bloody hurricane.’ She put a foot on the buggy’s wheel and punched the plastic hood down.
‘Can I hold it for you?’ Donald asked. He knew her from a neighbourhood residents’ meeting, several years earlier, where she had spoken passionately against road-widening. He had seconded her motion and since then they’d exchanged pleasantries on the rare occasions they met.
She was a tall strapping woman and looked down at him from a great height trying to work out which would fly first, the bundle that was Donald, or the rickety buggy. ‘If you could hang on to it, I’ll strap Tommy in before he leaps out of the other end and creates Armageddon.’
Donald gripped the handle. ‘Right. I’ve got it.’
She yanked the door open again and ducked in; Donald averted his eyes from her stooped back and puckered jeans.
When she emerged again, another gust made him stagger. She caught the buggy and swiftly collapsed it. ‘Thanks. Can I give you lift somewhere?’
‘It’s ok, I am just going down to the main library.’
‘Get in. I’ll be passing that way. It’s not safe walking in this gale.’
Donald looked at the line of trees swaying along the road. The tails of his coat flapped dangerously around his legs. ‘Well , if you really are going past it . . .’
‘Yes, I am.’ She slid behind the wheel and started the car. ‘Come on.’
Merci pour la lecture!