Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Careful Words

This story appeared in the recent edition of Boroondara Magazine. A few people were even kind enough to say they enjoyed it so, I thought, maybe I should put it up online. I mean, not everyone is lucky enough to work for City of Boroondara.
Dw i’n gobeithio eich bod chi’n mwynhau y stori, hefyd – I hope that you enjoy the story too.
It was a Sunday afternoon, just like any other Sunday afternoon at Balwyn Library. Return Chute overflowing. The Internet playing up. Kids wanting help with projects. People photocopying, reserving books, playing chess, and browsing the magazines.
We also had a man cleaning the table with his sock.
‘I’m an artist.’ He held out a pencil sketch he’d copied from one of our folios.
‘Yes, it’s lovely,’ I said. ‘But you really can’t—.’
Naughty,’ he rocked back and forth, clutching the paper to his chest. ‘I went over the edges. But I’ll clean it up.’
I looked down at the pencil square outlined on the table. ‘It’s fine. Please, don’t worry. The cleaners’ll do it later.’
‘No,’ he shook his head. ‘My mess. I have to fix it.’
I took a deep breath, noting the rhythmic sway of his body. The deep lines of anxiety creasing his mouth. Where to begin? I could explain that taking your socks of in the library was inappropriate. As was wetting them and cleaning a library table. But reason doesn’t always work when a person is unwell and, if this man did have a mental illness, trying to make him stop could be far more disturbing to him, and others, than a bit of sock-water on the table. Besides, I could always come back later with Ajax and a sponge.
I chose the latter course, pushing my trolley down into the sciences, passing books on solar systems and science experiments—sound, light, heat, and magnetismfollowed by a string of unfathomable chemistries, until I reached the six hundreds. Health. I stopped, checking my notes.
The catalogue indicated two books, Advanced Breast Cancer, and Coping with chemotherapy.
‘Just diagnosed,’ the elderly man had said on the phone. ‘We’ve been married thirty-six years,’ he paused, clearing his throat. ‘The Chemo should give her a few more months.’
I found the Advanced Breast Cancerbook. But the other title wasn’t on the shelf. I checked the trolleys. Not there either. I sighed. For some reason, recently returned items often fell into a black hole. I’d have to organise an inter-branch transfer.
Back at the reference desk, my colleague, Jonathan, was a man under siege. Five or six people waited in line while a man in a tweed cap explained he wanted ‘manly books, about men, doing manly things.’
Smothering a smile, I slipped into my seat. After a series of nods and gestures, the line divided and a slight, elderly woman stepped forward. Her hand shook as she slid a scrap of paper across the desk. On it, she’d written four carefully chosen words.
May I borrow book.
Right, I thought. This could be tricky. I glanced back along the line. No folded arms. Or hard thin lips. Good, we had time.
‘You can,’ I said, nodding. ‘But you’ll need a library card.’
She leaned forward, her dark eyes intent. Then with an impatient click of her tongue, she shook her head.
‘Card,’ I held one up, ‘to borrow.’
Ah. Yes. A wreath of smiles. She knew about those.
‘Have you got ID?’
‘ID?’ She repeated the unfamiliar word.
Yes, yes. She fumbled about in her handbag, eventually producing a burgundy passport with a familiar gold crest and the words, Peoples Republic of China emblazoned across the front.
This wasn’t an uncommon situation. Libraries are often the first port of call for international students. How they know about us, I’ve never worked out. Personally, I suspect someone in customs give them the nod. ‘Get straight down to the library,’ the unsmiling, uniformed official says. ‘They’ve got books in Chinese, and English as a Second Language materials.’
So they come in the boldness of youth, bearing passports and rental agreements, to join in the library in their polite classroom English, and to marvel at the wealth of available resources.
But this woman wasn’t a student. She looked well into her seventies. Was she on holiday? No, I didn’t think so. More like a new permanent resident. Something in the straightness of her bearing told me this was an act of quiet desperation. Yet, for all its difference, her need was as simple as the man who’d wanted manly books.
Something in her own language.
I typed her name and birthdate into the system. The passport was a start, but not enough. I needed a current address for a membership, preferably on an official document. But how to explain these requirements?
‘Your address?’ I tried the most obvious question. ‘Your house? Where do you live?’
A crease formed on her brow. Perspiration beaded her lip. This could take ages. I glanced back along the line.
I love the public. They fight over the computers, evade library fines, cut pictures out of the magazines, and complain regularly. But other times, they get it just right. This afternoon was one of them. As I scanned the row of waiting faces, there wasn’t a single raised eyebrow. Or scowl of impatience. Only a quiet recognition of courage. They were on our side.
‘Phone number?’ I held an imaginary handset to my ear.
Oh, yes, definitely, relief flooded her features. She opened her purse and pulled out a business card.
‘My son,’ she said, pointing to a name and address. ‘With him, I live.’
I looked at the business card. It was dog-eared and generic, not by any stretch of the imagination an official document, and I certainly shouldn’t have taken it as proof of address. But I joined the woman on the strength of that card, and let her start borrowing.
But it was only later, after I had sponged the sock-man’s table and organised an inter-branch transfer for the man whose wife had breast cancer, that I realised she’d left that scrap of paper on my desk. It was nothing much, only a crumpled sticky note. But I slipped it into my pocket, thinking of desperation, courage, and the whole messy business of serving the public, summarised in those four carefully chosen words.


Making Plans


A defining moment.


  1. I love this story. It reminds me of some of the lovely elderly customers I had when I was a bank teller in Canada. They couldn’t speak English, but somehow we managed, with a bit of good will from each other and the customers.

    I thought I’d better mention that I think you have a typo in the last line….”an” should be “and” I think. It pulled me out of the flow of the story, which is why I’m letting you know.

  2. ‘May I borrow book’. That is lovely.
    Thanks Liz, it’s a great piece.

  3. This is a gorgeous piece, Liz. I love the way this woman reached out and the way her fellow borrowers, and you especially, exhibited such patience and understanding. A tricky situation beautifully handled all around and a wonderful story to share.
    Hope to read more soon.

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