There was some comfort in repetition, she supposed. Each day was similar. The evenings grew lighter, the evenings grew darker. In winter more umbrellas were handed in as lost property, more of the lone and unkempt came in the library to shelter from the weather. The arrival of Spring was marked by more people borrowing travel books.
But the dates she stamped on the books moved onwards, the ages of the new borrowers she registered constantly reminded her that time wasn't on her side. She saw the stooped older borrowers, their tartan shopping trolleys full of large print family sagas and cat-food, and felt afraid. They had the smell of cheap biscuits on their breath; they insulated themselves from the world with nostalgia.
Objectively she knew there was no reason for her to share their fate. No whey-faced, becardiganned wallflower, she. She had a tattoo and she had friends. She just hadn't had much luck lately in the romance department. And it seemed a common experience. There were borrowers with younger, harder bodies, and faces more like those of people in magazines, and they were devouring thirteen or more Mills and Boon paperbacks a week. If they'd given up on true romance, what were her chances?
But, she told herself, there were still opportunities, late as it was. Counter duty offered chances to flirt. Not only did it allow her to give someone's appearance the once over, it also gave her some insight into their interests. And the items she issued and discharged gave a ready opportunity for small talk without embarrassment. She'd learnt the hard way that it paid to check people out thoroughly. She'd seen men she liked the look of lurking among the shelves, only to find they never borrowed anything more inspiring than Haynes car repair manuals and Star Trek novelisations. Conversely, she would spot an intriguing pile of books among the returns, look up the borrower on the computer, and find him to be some gummy, wall-eyed curmudgeon in his seventies.
But lately she'd seen somebody who seemed to promise something more rewarding. She had signed him up for membership. The proofs of identity he'd provided, a payslip and a bank statement, at least indicated he wasn't a new recruit to the small, depressing regiment of chronic newspaper-hogs who cluttered the place up daily.
Over the following weeks she observed his movements and manners. He seemed to work locally. There was something slightly old-fashioned about his courtesy that appealed to her. When he brought his chosen books to the counter, he placed them with each book opened at the date label page. It was an act of consideration that nobody else under fifty bothered with.
And the items he selected! Such taste. She resolved to make an excuse to talk to him on his next visit.
He returned an armful of hardbacks. He placed the books on the counter and flicked through each of them carefully.
She took her chance. Smiling she said, 'Checking for those twenty- pound-note bookmarks?'
He smiled back. 'Yeah, something like that.'
She picked up the copy he'd returned of Tracy Chevalier's 'Girl With A Pearl Earring.' She gave a shake of her head. 'I couldn't get on with this at all. Miles too much description.'
'Oh, I don't know. I liked that. That kind of painterly thing.'
He could use words like painterly and not sound ridiculous.
On the bus home she looked out at the rain and thought of him. The nights were drawing in now. She imagined winter evenings in pubs with real fires. She imagined sitting with him, discussing books until kicking out time.
It was some weeks before she saw him again. He returned a couple of CDs. She liked the fact that he only borrowed audio items occasionally. She couldn't properly fancy anybody who felt too at home browsing through row upon row of CDs in strict alphabetical order. Later he came to the issue desk with a Mike Leigh video and some travel books on Goa. Casually she said, 'Planning your holidays, then?'
He looked blank for a moment, then looked down at the books. 'Oh no. Those. No, they're for a friend.'
Over the week or so until his next visit their imaginary relationship progressed. She'd borrow a cookery book and a video, and take them round to his flat with a bottle of wine. After he'd cooked and they'd eaten, they'd watch the film and relax into each other on the sofa.
She grew irritated with herself. There was something juvenile about it all. She decided to act. The next time he was in, she'd make a move.
She only had to wait another day. He placed the Goa travel books in a pile on the counter. She hesitated. He looked at her, hesitant himself. Presently he gently pushed the pile an inch or two towards her, as if to confirm that yes, he was returning them.
Lightly she asked, 'No twenty-pound-note bookmarks in this lot, then?'
He squinted at her, puzzled. He didn't remember their previous exchange. This threw her. Her well-rehearsed invitation dissolved in her mouth.
As he left, she put his books on the shelving trolley. She flicked through them. Near the back of one of them was a card. A postcard. It showed an implausibly blue sea lapping against an unconvincingly white beach in Goa. She looked over at the readers at the nearby tables, nodding over their books and newspapers, oblivious to her. She began to read the postcard. It was addressed to him, and signed by somebody called Dave. The content, in a neat, slanting hand, was ordinary enough. But what gave her a sudden sharp pain between her ribs was the postscript. There at the bottom of the card, was an acronym which she was unable to fool herself stood for anything other than, knickers off ready when I come home.