Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Books, covers, and the bodies we live in.

You can’t judge a book by its cover. Neither can you judge a person by the materials they read. Just because a man comes to the library and borrows a book called, Sex Positions for Over Forty, doesn’t mean he has celebrated a recent birthday or that he’s grown tired of being a missionary.

On the contrary, he might be borrowing it for a friend, who is doing a nude painting class. The friend might be in a wheelchair and unable to come to the library. Or maybe he’s always wanted to borrow that book, but has been too embarrassed, because he’s actually in it. Or maybe he’s doing it for a dare, one of those pre-buck’s night things.

You don’t know. You really don’t, appearances are deceiving.

This was brought home to me on a recent beach holiday. I took a pile of books, as is my custom and after joyously and obsessively revelling in the sumptuous detail of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I needed a breather. I pulled a non-fiction book from my bag. I sat by a lovely inlet, in my little Port Fairy chair, reading and taking notes, when Andrew turned to me, face white, his lips trembling.

‘Liz? Is there something you haven’t told me?’

‘No,’ I turned, staring at him blankly.

‘But … your book?’

I turned the book over. It had a bright pink cover a library barcode and the title: Your Guide to Bowel Cancer.

‘Oh,’ I said understanding. ‘It’s not for me. I’m writing a short story from the perspective of someone with bowel cancer.’

‘But no one knows,’ he said. ‘They’re all walking past, looking at you thinking, poor woman, someone in her family has cancer. Maybe even that woman has cancer? The poor brave thing.’

Well, he had a point. I could see how my reading choice might be misleading. But we should never judge a book by its cover. Nor a reader by the book they are reading. Further to that, I would like to add, we should never judge a person, by their outward appearance.

I learned this most recently at the library. We have a customer who, for this blog, I shall call The Wharfie. I will describe him as wearing a blue wife-beater and a navy flannel work shirt. He isn’t really called The Wharfie. Neither does he look like one. But please bear with me, I can’t breach confidentiality. But I must characterise, for the purposes of telling.

The Wharfie comes to the library regularly. But if he ever worked on a wharf, I’d be extremely surprised. He is slight, scrawny even. His face ravaged by alcohol, tobacco and the passage of years. These are not assumptions, I can smell the tobacco. I know he slips out of the library doors, periodically, for a drink. What life has dealt him, I can hardly imagine. But I suspect it hasn’t been easy for The Wharfie.

One of the best parts of my job is serving folks like the Wharfie. Don’t ask me why, but I get a kind of warmth from it. I like knowing there is a cosy well lit place in the world where anyone can come, no matter how badly life has treated them. That they can spend all day there (and trust me plenty do), and so long as they don’t abuse the staff, or throw chairs, they can borrow DVD’s, or books, or simply read newspapers and magazines.

As a Christian, I sometimes wonder why our churches aren’t more like this.

The other day, The Wharfie, came to the information desk, and thrust a scrap of paper at me. On it were written three medical looking phrases.

‘Doctor says I have to take these,’ he said. ‘I want to know what they’re gonna do to me.’

Well, it was a fair request. Although, I suspected prescribed drugs were the least of The Wharfie’s worries. But it wasn’t my place to speculate, merely to find the information. Unfortunately, it was also one of those afternoons when everyone wanted to join the library. Added to which, the phone hadn’t stopped ringing and now school was out. There were kids everywhere. I had a line like a giraffe’s neck arching from my desk.

‘I can look it up,’ I said. ‘But it might take time. Have you got a minute?’

‘No worries, The Wharfie said.

When he came back later, I had the MIMS open on my desk, but I hadn’t had a chance to look for his drugs.

‘I’m not busy,’ he said. ‘I’ll read something else, for a while.’

By the time he returned, I’d found the drugs in the MIMS. All I had to do was photocopy them. But I couldn’t understand a word of the descriptions. I doubted The Wharfie would, either. I showed him the descriptions. ‘These aren’t much good to you,’ I said. ‘I’ll look in one of our databases.’

‘Take your time,’ he said. ‘I’ll come back in a minute.’

‘You’re very patient,’ I nodded gratefully.

He smiled, all the lines on his face softening. ‘That’s what my granny always said.’

I found the information he required, and we were alone at the desk. I explained that although, the headings were slightly different, these were indeed the drugs he’d listed.

‘They’re gonna cut me open,’ he said, quietly. ‘You mightn’t see me for a while.’

I nodded, feeling a sudden tightening in my throat.

Would someone to visit this man? I wondered. Bring him flowers? Ask how he felt? This battered old man, who had softened at such a small compliment, and despite my professional training, I found myself wondering how someone could travel the years, through all sorts of unimaginable hardship, yet still melt at the memory of his grandmother’s words.

‘Well, good luck,’ I said. ‘I’ll see you when you’re better.’

But I didn’t see him again.

Not for weeks.

I asked the other staff at morning tea. ‘Have you seen The Wharfie, lately?’

No one had.

I began to fear he hadn’t made it. That his membership would simply expire after two years. That we would never know what happened? Whether he was in pain, at the end? Whether he found peace? That’s the thing about being a librarian. You don’t judge a book by its cover. Neither do you judge a borrower by their books. And you never, ever, know when a small glimpse of someone’s life will disarm you, and make you care.

Last Saturday, I went to a picnic in the Botanical Gardens.

I drove home, mulling over a delightful afternoon with family friends. Wondering what we’d have for dinner. Whether Andrew and I would go to a movie? Work in the garden tomorrow? Go to the gym? The library was the furthest thing from my mind.

Until, I saw a familiar figure standing at the bus stop.

The traffic light at the approaching intersection turned red. I leaned on the brake and brought the car to a slow halt. Turning, I peered back at the old man. He wore a blue wife-beater and a flannel work shirt. His face was ravaged by the care of years. But he was alive. And it was The Wharfie. And I found myself grinning stupidly in the traffic queue.

I didn’t wave or toot my horn. He wouldn’t know me outside of work. Besides, I’m the librarian, a sometimes silent witness to other people’s lives.

But I went home feeling light of heart. Knowing he’d be back at the library sometime, next week, or the week after, and I’d smile and ask how he was, and he probably wouldn’t even remember telling me he was going to have surgery – if indeed, he ever did – and life would go on, just as before, and as long as he didn’t shout, or throw chairs, he’d keep coming to the library for the remaining years of his life.

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5 Comments

  1. Wow. That’s beautiful.

    You should think about a career as a writer 😉

  2. Okay, you totally made me cry.

  3. What a lovely post. Thanks for sharing.

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