THE SWIM BACK
I don’t know why it’s so hard for everyone to understand why I burned down the library. They’re acting like they’ve never been in love before.
Instead there’s a massive hole in our living room window. It’s shaped like a comic kapow bubble. Kapow!—someone hurls a book through our window in the middle of the night. A hardback, a real nugget of a thing. Dad binned it and won’t say what it was. Something someone didn’t mind parting with, Mum says—Danielle Steele.
She’s out with the Dyson again, trying to lift the glass from the carpet. I tell her not to bother, I’ll take it out with my feet. She doesn’t laugh—turns out you can’t joke about self-harm when people think you tried to kill yourself.
Her and dad have decided to leave the window as-is for today. They want people to see that things are out of control. First the mailbox, now the window, what next? Their son apparently.
So I’m under house arrest, by order of the matriarch. She kills the Dyson and tells me it’s time to change the dressing on my leg. Then she tells me to go to another room, away from the draft. Nothing doing. If she’s going to keep me from school, then I choose the view. It was by a broken window that I first saw Annabel. It’ll be through this broken window that I see her for the last time.
I ought to explain that. I was a book shelver. When someone removes a book from the shelf, we shelvers call that space that remains a window. Windows are gold for shelvers. Windows mean you can reshelve a book without a) having to shift aside other books and b) with only a passing glance at the spine label. It turns a 7 to 9 second task into a 2 to 3 second one. That doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up when you’re shelving hundreds of books.
I ought to mention, too, just quietly, that I was the best shelver in the library. I could send more books home in an hour than any other shelver. 287 if anyone’s counting, which of course I was. Officially, all shelvers got paid the same hourly rate. Unofficially, you got a bonus for consistently hitting 250 in an hour. That bonus wasn’t much—it was a tinned carrot, Coles homebrand—but back then I was chasing every cent.
The previous summer my uncle had promised me his 1982 silver BMW 3 series coupe 381i—look that up if you need to, you won’t find anything more beautiful made of metal. The catch was that I had to raise the funds by Christmas or the Beamer was out on the open market. The whole thing reeked of my parents, another sponsored attack to teach me the value of hard work and goals, but I was in just the same. That silver pig-nosed prince was going to take names, and phone numbers. Especially phone numbers.
But as my dad always says, when you put your head down and push paper and plan for the day when your life will begin, fate just steps right in and swings good and proper for your balls. Well, that first time I spied Annabel though a broken window, fate threw me an atomic kick, had me down on my knees and doubled over. That’s pretty much where I stayed, half in pain, half in worship.
The crazy thing is, Annabel never should have been a shelver in the first place. She loved books. That’s the last thing you want in a shelver. If in the interview anyone says ‘I love reading’ or ‘I’m crazy about books’ that should be the death knock. Shelvers are grunts. We’re alphanumeric robots. We’re the goddamn engine of the library. Anyone who pauses to admire the coal risk a constipated Returns’ area, and that riles everyone, especially the technicians.
Anyway, so there was Annabel, floating past a broken window, like a vision, a siren, and it did for me. I pretty much left earth that day. I launched. I was in orbit, a rogue satellite—weightless, moving a million miles an hour, and in tune with the whole world.
I had to be near her, had to be with her, had to win her. It was all I thought about. And I knew I could shoot for all three via Pyramid.
I ought to explain that. Every seasoned shelver played Pyramid. The rules were simple: the library had two wooden pyramids where about a dozen books could be displayed on three tiered shelves. Starting on the hour, you and your co-pilot each took a pyramid, stripped it, then loaded it up with whatever books you thought people would borrow. You replaced any that were taken, and at the end of the hour you subtracted from your score any that remained.
Annabel went wild for it. What’s more she loved to win, which was fine by me because I knew how to lose—when you shelve for three hours an afternoon several times a week you get to know the class presidents from the freaks and geeks. I went down like the mafia was paying me. I couldn’t help it—every seat in my stupid heart sold out at the thought of seeing Annabel’s winning smile.
But then she got smug, and I got careless. We began to make wagers on the games we played, small things like little favours or chocolate bars—things I would have killed to be able to do or buy for her without an excuse. I even let her win a monopoly on shelving the children’s picture books, the Sunday stroll of shelving. But when she proposed a month-long immunity from rounding up orphan library baskets, I practically fell over myself and said I’d do three months of orphan duty against a picnic in the botanical gardens, just the two of us.
Ruairi Murphy is a librarian and writer based in Hobart. In 2017, he was shortlisted for the Tasmanian Premier’s literary prize and was a finalist in the Tasmanian writer’s prize. In his writing, Ruairi likes to explore themes around identity, memory, and the boundaries between human and animal.