By Shona Kinsella
Harold glanced at his watch and gulped his coffee, grimacing as it burned all the way down. He put the cup on the counter, moving too quickly and causing the liquid to spill over the side, burning his hand. He cursed and ran his hand under cold water.
‘Calm down,’ Daniel said, sounding amused. ‘You have plenty of time.’
‘Harold turned around with a sheepish grin. ‘I just don’t want to be late on my first day.’
‘At the place you’ve worked for the last ten years?’ Daniel stepped close and straightened Harold’s tie.
‘You know what I mean. My first day as the boss.’
‘I know. You’ll be fine. You deserve this promotion and everyone knows it.’ Daniel planted a quick kiss on Harold’s cheek. ‘I’m taking you out for dinner tonight to celebrate. We can try the new Japanese place. Meet me there at six?’
‘Perfect.’ Harold rested his forehead against Daniel’s then gave him a slow kiss before pulling away reluctantly. ‘I have to go. I’ll see you tonight.’
Harold arrived outside the library at eight-thirty, an hour before opening time. He set his briefcase down between his feet and took out a cigarette, lighting it with an engraved lighter that Daniel had given him for Christmas. He smiled, running his thumb over the words For my hunky hubby before tucking it into his pocket. He took a deep drag, holding the smoke in his lungs and tilting his head back before releasing it in a streame took a He to dissipate in the morning sunlight. He had been trying to stop smoking for years but just couldn’t quite get there. Still, he had managed to cut down to just three a day. That had to be better than nothing.
Harold looked down the street to where Nellie stood outside the café. ‘Morning,’ he called back.
‘Will you be in for lunch today?’ she asked, running up the blue shutter that covered the café door.
‘What’s the soup today?’ Harold asked, grinning. They had been having this conversation every day for years.
‘Ham and Lentil,’ Nellie answered, shading her eyes from the sun. ‘I’ll throw in a sandwich for free, you look like you need a good feeding up!’
Harold laughed. He was naturally skinny, although he often ate like a horse. Nellie had been trying to feed him up ever since she took over the café. ‘Then it’s a date,’ Harold said winking. He put his cigarette out and dropped the end into the bin outside the library door before stooping to pick up his briefcase. He frowned when his hand met only air and looked around. The case stood about a foot to his left. How did it get there? He distinctly remembered putting it down between his feet. He looked up and down the street, puzzled. Had he stepped towards Nellie? He didn’t think so, but he couldn’t be entirely sure. He picked up his briefcase, studying it as if he expected it to sprout legs. An image popped into his mind of the luggage from Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic. Chuckling, he fished the keys out of his pocket and opened the library door.
The interior was dim, the only light coming through the stained-glass windows on either side of the door. Harold flicked the light-switch on but nothing happened. Of course, he thought. It’s almost a universal law that something must go wrong on your first day of a new job. Still thinking of Rincewind and his luggage, Harold swung his briefcase onto the desk and headed to the electrical cupboard at the back of the building.
Nothing was out of place in the electrical cupboard, the fuse switches were all at the ON position and there was no hint of why the lights were not working. Harold glanced at his watch, lighting up the digital display. Quarter to nine. In fifteen minutes, he would phone head-office and ask them to send an electrician.
He was on his way back to the front desk when he heard a rustling sound, like someone rifling through the pages of a book, somewhere off to his left. He headed in that direction, walking between bookshelves that burst with knowledge. This place never failed to inspire him. As he made his way through the library, the sound seemed always to be on the other side of the next shelf. Soon he had followed it around the entire building, ending up back where he started and no wiser.
Harold heard the door opening and then the lights all sprang to life.
‘Harold? Are you here?’ Nina called from the front of the building.
‘How did you get the lights to work?’ Harold asked, rounding the shelves behind the front desk and coming face-to-face with the cheerful library assistant. With her ready smile and persistently positive outlook, Nina brightened up the room just by being in it.
‘Well, there this thing called a switch…’ she answered, grinning and setting down the box she had been carrying. ‘I decided to suck up to the new boss.’ Nina flipped open the box, exposing a cake with Congratulations Harold iced on top.
‘Is that a Costco cake?’ George asked, shrugging out of his jacket as he approached.
Nina nodded and Harold clapped his hands together in anticipation. ‘Coffees are on me,’ he said, forgetting all about lights that wouldn’t work and strange rustling noises.
That evening, Harold sat fiddling with a bottle of Asahi beer, waiting for Daniel, who had been held up at the office with a client emergency. Harold’s stomach grumbled; lunch seemed a long time ago. He pulled a book out of his briefcase and ordered another bottle of beer. He had only managed to read a few pages when he felt a brief touch on his shoulder and looked up, expecting to see Daniel.
There was no one there.
Harold glanced around the restaurant. No-one seemed to be paying any attention to him. A woman was taking her seat a few tables away. Perhaps she had brushed against him. He hadn’t noticed her passing but he had been quite engrossed in his book. He turned back to the story but startled when an icy finger stroked down the back of his neck. He slapped a hand to his neck and looked around again. His skin broke out in goose bumps and he shivered. He must be sitting in a draft.
He was about to signal the waitress to ask about moving tables when he saw Daniel come through the door. His breath caught in his throat for a moment. It was almost twenty years since they had met and Daniel still had the effect on him. He smiled and stood up, greeting his husband with a hug.
Harold settled into the rhythm of his new job quickly, arranging a children’s program for the school Easter holiday which kept the library bustling from opening to closing time for the next two weeks. If he occasionally heard strange noises in the library, he put it down to the presence of so many children and if a cold breeze should touch him he went looking for open doors.
On the last day of the school holidays a young girl requested a book that, according to the computer, should have been on the shelves but was nowhere to be seen, prompting a day long search by all of the library staff. Eventually, the book was found underneath the sofa in the children’s library but the experience prompted Harold to carry out an inventory. He wanted to be sure that every book on the computer system was on the shelves.
So it was that Harold began spending an hour in the library each night after closing time. More often than not, Nina or George or even Dorothy would stay to help but Harold came to relish the quiet time and did not mind at all when he was left alone.
One Tuesday in early May, Harold closed up the library at eight pm and waved Nina off with promises not to stay too late. He checked his mobile and saw a text from Daniel.
‘Pizza tonight? 2 for Tuesday!’
Harold chuckled and sent a message back.
‘Sounds great. I’ll just do one shelf tonight, you order pizza and I’ll collect on way home.’
He tucked his phone into his pocket and grabbed the clipboard with the inventory print-out on it before heading towards the back of the library. He would be starting on the biography and memoir section tonight, three rows of bookcases as tall as he was.
He had just stepped into the first row when the overhead lights began to flicker. Harold paused and looked up, watching the lights. Sometimes high wind caused them to flicker but it didn’t sound like that was a problem just now. As he strained his ears for any indication of wind, he heard a sigh and then a rustling sound, like someone flicking through the pages of a book.
‘Is anybody here?’ Harold called. Perhaps someone had lost track of the time and gotten locked in. There was no answer.
The lights settled back into a steady glow and Harold had almost convinced himself that he had been imagining things when the sound came again. He followed it through the shelves, calling again. ‘Is someone there? The library is closed now.’
As on his first day as co-ordinator, Harold searched the library, following a sound that was always just ahead of him. He was approaching the science-fiction and fantasy section when his phone chirped in his pocket, making him jump. He let out a shaky laugh and checked the message.
‘Pizza ordered, ready in 15.’
‘Damn,’ Harold muttered. He had been so busy chasing the phantom sound that he had run out of time for inventory. He looked at the clipboard still in his hand and sighed, turning back towards the desk.
He was tucking the clipboard away in the drawer when he felt a cold puff of air against the back of his neck. The sensation of being watched descended upon him and Harold felt his hackles rise. He turned in a circle, his gaze seeking out any sign of another person. Nothing. You’ve just made yourself nervous, he thought. He reached for his coat and was shrugging it on, trying to ignore the feeling that he was fleeing when a book that was lying on the desk flapped open, it’s pages fluttering past at speed. Harold ran for the door.