Chapter 3 – Who Knew Libraries Were Such a Health Hazard?

Janet was concerned by Daniel’s call. She had heard very little of it, the line was particularly bad, but there seemed to be a nervous edge to his voice. Perhaps he was stressed by the new office and all it entailed. Sometimes Bill Watts, the managing director and owner of the company, could be a little demanding; on a day like this, their first day in their new office, she was sure he would be a real pain in the arse. Having met him on a couple of occasions, she hadn’t been impressed by his human interface, as he called it. Tosser.
In spite of herself, and much to her surprise, she had enjoyed the brains Danny cooked for her breakfast this morning. The bacon helped, she thought. Strange meal for breakfast though, and as for that daft thing he had picked up from his beloved zombie films, ‘braaaaiinnzzz’, or whatever it was, he was a grown man and she would be happy if, one day, he behaved more like one. Anyway, zombies weren’t anything more than a fictional invention. She’d read articles trying to justify their existence, but it was all claptrap in her opinion.
More importantly, her cold was taking a stronger hold, dammit. This would affect her ability to concentrate today, and she really needed to go to the library and work her way through their copy of the Domesday Book. That was hard enough to do when she was compos mentis, let alone with a stinker of a cold coming. All she could do was dose up on medicine and hope for the best.
She drank the coffee she had made after Daniel had left for work. While she did the dishes, she stared vacantly at the window in front of her, her actions automatic. Janet hated housework, especially the washing-up, which was mostly Daniel’s job; she had him pretty well trained. She suddenly focused on the window and saw her reflection. God, she looked a bit like a zombie herself, with the dark circles under her red-rimmed eyes, and her unhealthy pallor; perhaps they did exist after all, maybe they were just ordinary, everyday people struggling to cope. Wiping her hands, she went upstairs to try and make herself look more presentable, although who would notice, she didn’t know. Her destination today was just short of a mile away, the walk would do her good, hopefully.
Finishing up in the house, she picked up her rucksack and set off to Eltham; they had the closest library with a proper reference section. It was after nine a.m.; most of the commuters would be gone, so it was unlikely she would see anyone walking in her direction. She liked empty streets. The traffic would also be lighter, so less toxic fumes to breath in; Janet had never been convinced of the benefits of exercise. In the London air, she was even more dubious of the value of walking as exercise. All those main roads, queuing traffic, just sitting there, burning petrol. Most people could probably walk to their destinations anyway, especially mums and their little darlings, who seemed to require to be driven absolutely everywhere these days. What had she heard recently, a report that said some 95% of primary school kids couldn’t throw or catch a ball by the time they reached secondary school, aged eleven. What sort of a population were we sleepwalking towards? At least grannies would be safe, they could probably see the new breed of callow youth off. No more dissatisfied upstarts hanging around on street corners, rebels without a cause no more.
Crossing the main road and heading up Court Road towards Eltham, she noticed a couple, dressed like commuters, attired for the City, walking towards her. There was something decidedly strange in their gait, slouched, head-down, arms slack by their sides, movements completely uncoordinated, awkward even. There was something about their faces that didn’t look right, either. Too pale, sick looking; they looked drawn, emotionally hollow. Could they be drug addicts? The clothes were at odds with this assumption. Both looked really pale, almost lifeless. One of them appeared to have a nose bleed. Daniel had mentioned that earlier, one of the commuters walking up their road had a bleeding nose, and from what he also said, she’d done nothing to stem the flow. Unless it was the same person, this one was behaving similarly.
Head down, she walked briskly past the couple, trying not to look at them or catch their attention. She glanced in the plate glass window of the dry cleaners she was passing, hoping to see someone she knew, maybe the proprietor, Miriam, to bolster her confidence. Miriam was indeed standing there, but she had a vacant look on her face and she, too looked very pale. Janet waved at her, smiling. Miriam turned slightly towards her, but didn’t seem to see her at all, just continued to stand there, motionless and staring out of the window.
Janet decided she would be glad to get to the library. Walking as fast as she could, head down to avoid other people’s eyes, she walked in through the door after her best time yet of twenty minutes, door to door. She had used all the back routes she knew, avoiding the high street. People looked really odd, sluggish, drawn and pale this morning, and alarm bells were beginning to sound in her mind. She would have turned around and gone home, but by the time she had thought of doing that, she was closer to her destination than to home and really wanted, no, needed to, get inside. Her chest hurt from her exertion, the cold was not going to forgive her this extra effort. Once inside, she leant against the wall next to the notice board and caught her breath. After a while, she delved into her bag, produced her note book and walked over to the staff counter, situated half way down the large cavernous hall that was the library. This main room was broken up by a large number of tall bookcases, arranged in sections, and capable of losing people for days at a time in the maze they created. A glass and wood partition separated the public from the staff and their mysterious duties. Looking into the forbidden area, and in fact all around her, she couldn’t find any staff at all.
Sighing with frustration, she rang the little bell on the counter, and suddenly Boring Joe, as she called him, at least in her mind, suddenly stood up. At other times she thought of him as Halitosis Joe, for obvious reasons. His given name was Paul. He had been bending down low, out of sight behind the counter as she approached; his sudden appearance startled her and she squealed in fright. Embarrassed, she frowned at him and told him off.
“Don’t do that, Paul! You could have given me a heart attack.”
“S-s-so s-s-sorry, madam,” he stammered. “Oh, it’s y-y-you,” he said, recognising her and smiled slightly, flushing; he clearly had a crush on her. Recognising this fact, Janet had frequently and shamelessly used him; today’s example of this misuse was the illicit access to a copy of her target book; these works were usually reserved only for professional archivists and the like. He had bent over backwards to accommodate her wishes.
“Lovely to see you, Janet.” No more stammering, his confidence had returned. “I’ve got the book all set up for you, if that’s what you’ve come in for?”
“I have indeed, Paul. Can you take me to it now? I really need to get started. I’ve got a stinker of a cold coming on, and I’m not sure how long I will last.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, a number of our staff seem to have it, too, as they haven’t turned up for work; no phone call or anything. Selfish, I call it. Anyway, come with me and I’ll take you to your prize.” He led her deeper into the library and towards the reference section. They walked past the children’s play area, where a playgroup had congregated with accompanying parents, all women.
Janet looked at them, they were unusually quiet for a group of kids, she thought. The mothers were sitting in a circle, facing inwards, their faces hard to discern. The children sat within their protective circle. To her horror, some of the kids seemed to be playing with small body parts, sucking or chewing on them. Then she realised, of course, plastic dolls; these had to be their limbs, she felt foolish at her initial assumption. Absent-mindedly, she looked around for the accompanying plastic torsos. One of the children, she could see, had blood around its mouth, probably from a nose bleed, she assumed. This infection is everywhere, even affecting children. Of course, the obvious question now being, why was the child in with the others when it was ill? Probably one of those ‘infection parties’, perhaps, when mums take their children to a house where a child is sick, to get them over the most common childhood illnesses, and help boost their immunity into adulthood.
Lost in this thought, Paul quietly called to her, catching her attention once more. He gestured for her to accompany him over to the door that separated the public area from the reference section.
“Come in quickly. Strictly speaking you shouldn’t be in here with this material. Just keep your head down and no-one will notice. I’ve set the books up over there,” he said, pointing to a large desk on which many thick tomes lay, waiting just for her. She grinned at the thought.
“Thanks Paul, you’re a treasure, doing this for me.” Sometimes she felt a right heel for thinking of him the way she did, she just couldn’t help it.
The so-called Domesday book, commissioned in 1085 by William the Conqueror, was to determine the land and resources in England at the time, in order for the Crown to assess the extent of taxes it could raise. The absolute and irreversible nature of the data collected, led people to compare it to Judgement Day. Although there were more appropriate references to such an event in the Bible, Janet couldn’t help but remember the beautifully spoken lines in Romero’s film, Dawn of the Dead, ‘when there is no more room in hell, the dead shall walk the earth’. Daniel had played it so many times over the years, she couldn’t help but remember it. Smiling to herself at Daniel’s enthusiasm for that stuff, she wondered what he was doing right now, probably getting bored to death by yet another interminable meeting with Bill, no doubt.
Janet sat down to begin her research. Having waited nearly two months for this opportunity, she wasn’t going to let a stupid cold get the better of her. In fact, with a bit of positive thinking, she was already feeling a little improved. Deep in thought, she was startled by a scream coming from what sounded like the main hall. Jumping to her feet in panic, she rushed to the door.
Peering carefully through the glass window, she saw a man, dressed in a long, and what looked expensive, grey tweed overcoat. He was clutching something to him; she couldn’t quite make it out. A small person? A child, perhaps. Just then he straightened up, and she saw his face. She gasped out loud, and in panic ducked down, out of sight. Starting to hyperventilate slightly, she forced herself to control her fear and look again. He was still there, staring straight at her. She was transfixed by his face. It was blood smeared; the gaze fixed and unblinking. She could now see what looked like a small person, perhaps even a boy, in his arms. The man appeared to have been gnawing at the lad’s throat, arteries and cartilaginous tubing of the trachea hanging from his mouth, caught in mid-chew. Janet felt the blood drain from her face; stomach churning with acid, she felt the remains of her breakfast beginning to make a reappearance. Weak and close to collapse, she fell against the doorjamb in horror.
The stranger dropped the damaged body, and began to walk awkwardly towards her. She looked down at his feet and saw, to her horror, that the right one was at an odd angle; he was standing on his exposed tibia, his foot dragging behind, leaving semi-clotted blood in his wake. Suddenly the boy twitched and groaned, the last vestiges of his life ebbing away, attracting the man’s attention once more. He turned around and kneeling down, continued his cannibalistic activities.
Copyright © 2013 David Kingsley Roberts

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