‘Can you believe it?’ Bob said as he slammed the phone down. The question may have been rhetorical but Brenda chose to answer anyway
‘What’s the matter dear? Can I believe what?’
‘The library. That was the library on the phone. Well a Ms Hemingway to be precise.’ Bob looked at the kitchen clock, ‘and it’s only five past nine on a Monday. You’d think they’d have better things to do than harass people first thing on a Monday morning.
‘Yes dear and what do you think would be a suitable time to harass people?’ asked Brenda.
‘Oh, very funny,’ said Bob, ‘you know what I mean and Ms Hemingway was far from polite.’
Brenda tried not to sigh. ‘Rudeness and harassment. Not a good start to the week. So what did she harass you about?’
‘She called to say I have an overdue library book. “An exceptionally overdue library book,” were her exact words. I can’t even remember the last time I was in the library, let alone borrowed a book. You didn’t by any chance ...?’
Brenda held up her hand. ‘No way, dear. If this Ms Hemingway phoned you, then it must have been you who borrowed the book. I only ever had a library card for the Prospect Library when we lived in Adelaide. I’ve never had one for the Yarramboola Library. What was the title?’
Bob told Brenda.
‘Well, it sounds like my kind of book but no, it wasn’t me.’
‘Yeah, well, I vaguely remember joining but that must be well over ten years ago now.’
‘So why did she suddenly phone you, out of the blue like that?’
‘They’re doing a purge, I think she called it. Trying to locate lost books or get recompense for their value. Need the funds to buy new books and equipment for the library. She did explain but her condescending manner put me off and I stopped listening.’
‘Hmm, wonder how they tracked you down?’
‘Must be from their old records. Our details haven’t changed. Should’ve played dumb and said we had only just moved into the house. Should have said Mr and Mrs Carnarvon had left the area.’
‘Oh, Bob and where would that have got you? The book can be worth only a few dollars and the most logical place it can be is in the bookcase or perhaps in the garage, stored with all the other stuff you want but don’t need. Have your breakfast and then go and have a look. You’ve got nothing else to do today.
Bob opened his mouth to say that he had planned to go walking on the new walking track that had been built near their house and take a few photos. Ever since he had retired, which was just on six months ago, he had decided that photography was going to be his hobby.
But Bob said nothing. Brenda was right. He would go and look in the garage, if he didn’t make the effort and look for the book he would only dwell on it. He didn’t care for Ms Hemingway’s tone but certainly he didn’t want her calling him back.
Bob hurried out to the garage straight after his second cup of tea. He felt his mood go from bad to worse as he looked at all the dusty boxes lining the garage walls. Why was it that garages were always depositories for crap? Not that his stuff was crap, mind you, it was everybody else’s. All his stuff was quality gear.
He yanked one of the boxes down from the top shelf. Unfortunately this was one of the oldest. The bottom fell out as he lifted it down, spilling its contents on the floor, covering his feet and spewing dust in the air. Damn! He grabbed an old flower pot, turned it upside down and sat down. He started wading through the debris.
Brenda was pleased to have her husband out of her hair for a while. They had been married, very happily she kept reminding herself, for nearly forty years. Their marriage had survived the raising of three children, their subsequent empty nest, the return of one child and then the leaving again, but retirement - that was a whole new kettle of fish. A completely new and uncharted course. Brenda kept telling herself it was just a matter of adjustment. Time would resolve most issues.
Maybe Bob would get bored and look for a part time job or maybe she would.
Brenda was pleased he liked his new camera. He had bought it on eBay second hand. Which was one of the issues, Bob was hogging the computer. Now it was a race to see who got there first in the mornings. They both liked to read the online papers and Brenda was increasingly coming in second. Still, for the moment, with Bob in the garage, it was all hers. Gleefully she sat down and scrolled through the pages.
An hour later Bob was still hard at it so Brenda took him a cup of tea and a blueberry muffin for morning tea. Morning tea! Yet another of the issues for Brenda. She had never bothered with it before but Bob always liked his morning tea and unfortunately Brenda now joined him. Six months later and three kilos heavier it was a habit she was finding hard to break.
Brenda sighed, she found herself doing a lot of that lately. She stood at the door to the garage. Where was he? She called his name and a pile of papers moved in her direction.
‘Oh there you are, I’ve brought you a cup of tea and a muffin.’ Brenda placed the cup and plate down and looked around. ‘Have you found the book yet?’
The glare Bob gave her cut her short. He stood up and kicked some of the papers away. They flew in the air and eddied around him. He walked over to his morning tea and sniffed the cup.
Oh dear, thought Brenda. Don’t tell me he wanted coffee instead. I should have asked him.
Tea and coffee were another major bug bear for Brenda. She could almost mimic her husband when she offered to make a cup of tea. ‘Tea?’ she would ask enquiringly and the answer would invariably be, ‘Coffee, thanks.’ If she took a risk and said, ‘Coffee?’ the answer would be, ‘No, tea, please.’
But Bob said nothing and took a big swig of tea and looked around at the mess. ‘I have no idea where that book is. I’ll just cop the fine. Look at all this rubbish.’
They glumly looked round the garage. It couldn’t be left like that, it needed to be cleaned up, or they would never get the car inside.
‘I’ll go to the library this morning and get it over with.’
‘I’ll come with you, if you like, moral support,’ said Brenda, anxious not to be left alone to clean up.
‘Great,’ said Bob, ‘we can walk there, shouldn’t take us longer that twenty minutes to get to the main street and after we’ve finished at the library we can stop for a coffee at the new café.’
Brenda stifled another sigh. Coffee at the new café equated to coffee and cake and in other words another half a kilo.
When Brenda and Bob had moved to Yarramboola just over twenty years ago, it had been a job promotion that had brought them into the district. Today it was considered to be semi-rural, and in real estate broker speak it was ‘trending upwards,’ but back then it was more rural than semi. Now prices had soared and many people were subdividing and selling off their acreage. New people were moving into the area and the little township was steadily growing.
But the country atmosphere still remained. It still retained the sense of community which had originally attracted Brenda and Bob to the area so many years ago. It suited them and it had suited their children. Their three boys had liked the quiet country life so much so, that they now all lived in the city. Max, their eldest boy had briefly returned after a disastrous relationship break up but now had thankfully decided to move in with his brother, Andy, their youngest son.
As Bob liked to say, ‘if the hat doesn’t like where the home is, it’s the hat’s problem.’
Brenda was not quite sure what that meant but she thought it was something along the lines of, if the kids don’t like where they were brought up well it was just tough on them.
As Brenda and Bob walked down the main street of their little but getting bigger town, they saw Mr Davis, from the local newsagent chatting to Mrs Simpson, the florist. They both nodded to Brenda and Bob.
‘Hi, David, Julie, how’s it going?’ Bob said as they got nearer. Just as the words had left Bob’s mouth, he was hit from behind by a wayward zimmer frame. He tried to move out the way, but the footpath was so narrow, he almost knocked its owner into the path of an oncoming disability scooter going the other way.
‘Sorry, sorry,’ Bob kept repeating as he dodged this way and that to let everyone pass.
‘Pavement not big enough for you, Bob?’ said the newsagent, ‘trying to knock over our senior citizens.’
‘Gee,’ said Bob, ‘I think it’s the other way round, they’re trying to get me. What is it, pension day today?’
‘Not today,’ said David, ‘that’s on Thursday, one of my biggest trading days. They all come in to get their pensions and then hit the shops. I always make sure I put a ‘Special’s Table,’ out then. But you’re retired, you should know when pension day is.’
Bob smiled. ‘No such luck,’ said Bob, ‘self-funded. Best I can do is a Seniors Health Care Card.’
They talked for a bit longer then said their goodbyes and headed to the library. Brenda and Bob both made a mental note about the ‘Special’s Table’ though, they both liked a good special.
With the influx of hobby farmers or hobby families as Bob called them, the number of shops and facilities down the main street of Yarramboola had grown. Now they had their own medical clinic, assorted pharmacies, a laundromat, antique centre, a supermarket and a new gift shop. Strictly speaking the new gift shop had replaced the old gift shop and it looked like it would soon be the old new gift shop as it was already having an end of lease sale. The town boasted five hairdressers.
‘Can never have too many hairdressers,’ Bob would say dryly. He had to travel to nearby Whittleby, ten kilometres away, to go to the nearest barber’s.
As they passed the last shop and came to the library, they paused outside the entrance.
‘Time to do battle with Ms Hemingway,’ said Bob.
‘Don’t say that. Ms Hemingway is probably a very nice person. She just came across badly on the phone, that’s all,’ replied Brenda as they climbed the steps and stood inside the foyer. ‘Just pay what’s due and then it’s finished. Remember to smile and breathe. Don’t lose your temper.’
She gave him a quick kiss for reassurance and then wandered over to the crime/thriller section.
Bob went over and stood at the counter. There was no one around. He looked hopefully for a bell. Couldn’t see one. Idly he read the signs displayed on the desk. Opening hours, children’s book reading times, they even had a visiting author coming to give a talk on her latest book on advanced aromatherapy. Wow, that would be a real page turner, he thought but still no one appeared.
After another ten minutes, Bob gave up and strolled over to a rack of newspapers and gestured to Brenda that he would just have a quick glance at the Financial Review. Brenda nodded and carried on browsing the crime/thrillers. There was a group of people sitting round a desk making themselves comfortable. One of them smiled at Brenda.
‘Would you like to join us? We’re just about to start.’
‘Oh,’ said Brenda, ‘what exactly are you’re doing?’
‘We’re a writers’ group. We meet every Monday and discuss our latest attempts at writing,’ said a young woman bouncing a baby on her lap
‘Writers’ group,’ moaned another woman, ‘that’s a grand name for us. More like a group with writing aspirations.’
‘Come now,’ said the first speaker. She appeared to be the person in charge. Brenda read her name badge, ‘Carol,’ and underneath was the word Convener. ‘We’re a bit more than that. Why Susan here,’ she nodded in the direction of the woman with the baby, ‘is about to have one of her short stories printed in an online anthology.’
Everyone looked at Susan and she looked embarrassed.
‘Oh, well done,’ said the grumpy woman, ‘that’s fantastic.’
Everyone else at the table clapped and Brenda decided that perhaps it would be fun to sit in and listen. She sat down next to Susan and smiled at her baby.
‘I’m glad you decided to join us,’ said Susan, moving her chair over to give Brenda more room. ‘It’s good to get new people in the group, we tend to get a bit self-absorbed.’
Good grief, thought Brenda, I hope they don’t think I’m joining them every week.
She glanced over at Bob, but he was now sitting down, fully engrossed in the paper. No rescue from that quarter. But by then it was too late and the class was brought to order.
They went around the table and introduced themselves. Next to Susan was a shy nervous young man. His name was Peter. He was hoping to get into university next year and was using the group to practice his writing skills. Beside him was Colin, a middle-aged widower, with sad puppy eyes. Brenda noticed he spent a lot of his time looking longingly in Carol’s direction but she seemed oblivious to his silent courtship. And completing the group was Mona, the grumpy lady.
Brenda smiled at them all and, with a sigh, resigned herself to sitting there for the next hour or so. Not that resigned was quite the correct word, they proved to be quite lively companions.
Mona, turned out to be the poet of the group and she was keen to read a few stanzas of her latest epic.
Ode to an Insomniac
At sleep I rest, fulfilled
To dream a thousand times.
I wake, I stretch, content … Sublime - Deceit
Perplexed, I start to rise
Unclear, unsure, in doubt,
Still groggy from my rest ... Confused - Deplete
Through swollen eyes I peer,
Red rimmed and hollow framed,
I start the days first phase … Downbeat - Defeat
To Brenda’s ears it sounded truly dreadful but the group didn’t pass judgement. Each one in turn gave Mona some constructive feedback. Mona relished any perceived criticism and held onto it tightly but she discarded the positive with a wave of her hand.
Mona by name and Moaner by nature, thought Brenda.
But as time passed, Brenda found herself more and more fascinated with Carol. She was an interesting mix of eclectic and sophistication. Her blonde grey hair was piled high on her head, secured only by two combs. It teetered ominously every time she moved her head while her clothes were chic and elegant. Carol was also an effective manager, skilfully handling the group and never letting any one person dominate. She had a boundless energy and enthusiasm that Brenda found quite infectious.
Brenda was saved from any embarrassment from having to explain why she was there by another embarrassment. She heard her husband’s voice raised in anger. Oh dear, Bob and Ms Hemingway had found each other.
Brenda looked towards the front counter. As she leant back in her chair she could make out the figure of a woman standing behind the service counter. She was aged anywhere from thirty to forty, thin, dark and wiry, attractive in a daunting don’t mess with me sort of way. Bob was gesticulating wildly but the woman appeared to be unfazed.
Just as Brenda was debating whether to stay put or go and help her husband, Carol announced that the class was over. Brenda grabbed her bag and was about to hurry over to Bob, when Peter spoke to her.
‘You will come to our next class, won’t you? Like Susan said, it’s always good to have new people and new ideas, can get a bit staid otherwise.’
Brenda was about to decline the invitation but it was echoed by the others.
‘Yes, do come along, and bring some of your writing next time,’ said Carol.
Brenda was anxious to leave. ‘I can’t promise,’ she said quickly, ‘but I’ll try. I’m not really a writer. Look I’m sorry I have to go, I have to rescue my husband. It’s been great. Thanks.’
As Brenda hurried over to her husband, she noticed a crowd had started to gather. The heated discussion was proving quite a hit with the other library goers. It was always fun to be a spectator. One of them tugged on Brenda’s arm.
‘She did that to me the other week,’ the lady said pointing to Ms Hemingway. ‘Kept phoning and phoning about a book I borrowed, ooh, must be nearly five years ago. I turned the house upside down looking for it, finally found it in the attic. Couldn’t return it quick enough.’
Oh dear, thought Brenda, we’re going to be the talk of the town by the end of the day.
Bob was oblivious to the gathering crowd. He was too busy glaring at Ms Hemingway.
‘So you’re telling me that you want me to keep looking for this book even though I’ve told you that l’ve spent all morning looking for it and it’s most definitely lost. As I keep saying, I’m quite happy to pay any fines due. I think your attitude is completely unreasonable.’
‘On the contrary, Mr Carnarvon, I think it is you who are being unreasonable. Spending a couple of hours looking for library property is not acceptable. Everyone says they are happy to pay whatever is due, they don’t seem to realise that keeping library property is tantamount to stealing. It must be somewhere, and the library would be grateful for its return. Please look again.’
‘But the book is lost, what more can I say.’
‘You were the last person to borrow it so it stands to reason it must be somewhere in your house. Paying a fine is a last resort.’
Just then the phone rang.
‘Ernestina, phone call for you,’ called out one of the other librarians.
Ms Hemingway glared at Bob.
‘Please go away and look for it,’ she hissed then turned on her heel and walked away.
Bob was furious, but not so furious that he had lost his sense of humour. Bob and Brenda tried not to look at each other for fear of laughing as they slunk out of the library.
‘Ernestina Hemingway, I don’t believe it,’ was all Bob could say.
Bob was so wrapped up in what had happened at the library that he completely forgot about stopping at the new café. Brenda and her hips weren’t going to remind him so they walked straight home.
While Brenda prepared a toasted cheese sandwich for her husband for lunch and a cup of soup for herself, Bob kept re living the scene.
‘So the upshot is I’m supposed to keep looking for this confounded book and then return it to the Yarramboola Community Library to keep Ms Ernestina Hemingway, Chief Librarian and major pain in the arse, happy.’
‘Hmm, sounds a bit weird to me. I wonder why she wouldn’t just let you pay for it.’
‘She harped on about it being the easy way out. According to her, it’s out of print now and they wouldn’t be able to get another copy.’
‘But surely it’s out of print for a reason, no one wants it.’
‘Oh no, not so, our Ms Hemingway delighted in telling me that it’s still in demand. Many requests for it apparently.’
‘Rubbish,’ said Brenda, ‘who’d want to read a book that old. Well, keep looking. I’ll help you if you like. At least, at this rate, we’ll get the garage cleaned out.’
They spent the rest of the day looking through the remainder of the accumulated papers and files that were stacked in the garage. There were heaps of old pictures and school books they had kept in the mistaken belief that their children would want a record of their childhoods. But their children seemed as disinterested in the memorabilia as their parents were, so it all remained stored in the garage going mouldy.
‘What do you reckon,’ said Bob as he held up the collective artistic works of Max Carnarvon.
‘Ditch them,’ said Brenda. ‘We’ve told them and told them to come and collect their stuff but they’re not interested. Throw them out.’
Bob threw the pictures into the back of his ute for recycling.
‘What about Andy and Gus’s stuff?’
‘Chuck all that too,’ said Brenda ruthlessly.
Soon the garage was looking tip top and clean. But still no library book.
‘You know,’ said Bob, ‘I don’t even remember borrowing the book, let alone reading it.’
‘Well, we certainly don’t have it now that’s for sure. Look, let’s leave it. We’ll ring the library instead and see if we can speak to someone else.’
‘No,’ said Bob, ‘I must see this through. I’ll go back tomorrow and explain again. It’s definitely not here and Ms Hemingway can get as angry as she likes but I can’t make the book magically appear. You can’t unscramble a scrambled egg.’
‘What in heavens name do you mean by that?’ said Brenda.
‘You know exactly what I mean,’ said Bob knowingly and took himself off to the rubbish tip.
Bob had every intention of going back to the library the following day but as so often happens when you’re retired your plans can easily be changed. Early next morning a friend from Bob’s old accountancy firm phoned and asked if they were free for lunch. Bob readily accepted and they arranged to meet in the city, at a fashionable Chinese restaurant, for a long overdue catch up.
Brenda was slightly miffed. It was not that she didn’t want to go, it was just that Bob hadn’t asked her before accepting the invitation. He seemed to do be doing this more and more lately, planning things without consulting her. When Brenda challenged him about it, he smoothed it over by promising her a look at the shops later.
‘Not just a look,’ she said, ‘I want to buy. The sales are on.’
‘Very well,’ said Bob, ‘but just hurry up. The train leaves in forty minutes.’
Brenda went into the bedroom. Now what to wear, something loose and baggy, she thought, to hide the extra kilo she would undoubtedly encounter as a side dish.
After a mad rummage through the house looking for their myki cards, they arrived at the restaurant to find their friends already there. A bottle of red wine was sitting on the table, opened and waiting for them.
Charlie, a rotund, bald headed man, got up and gave Brenda a kiss and shook Bob’s hand warmly.
‘Been too long, Bobster,’ he said.
Bob laughed. No one called him that these days. He bent down and gave Charlie’s wife, Lisa a peck on the cheek.
When they were all finally settled and had ordered their meals, Brenda was careful to order a warm chicken salad so she could have the triple layer chocolate cake for dessert, the official catch up began.
Bob and Brenda heard about the latest adventures of Charlie’s and Lisa’s grandchild while Bob and Brenda regaled Charlie and Lisa with the latest antics of their three grown up sons. At times it was hard to distinguish the amusing behaviour of the grown up children from that of the child.
Still it made for lively conversation. The missing book, Ms Hemingway and the library weren’t mentioned until they were all having coffee.
‘It’s all very strange, Charlie,’ Bob said, after he had filled Charlie and Lisa in on the previous day’s happenings. ‘Maybe I’m over thinking it, but why not just accept I can’t find the wretched thing and take my money. To be perfectly honest I don’t like Ms Hemingway, she came across as bit of a bully.’
‘It does seem rather peculiar,’ Charlie agreed. He looked across at his wife. ‘What do you think, hon? You’ve had experience in the book world.’
Bob and Brenda looked at Lisa.
‘I used to work for a second hand book dealer,’ she said by way of explanation. ‘I’m no expert but one thing you haven’t told us is the title of your missing book, the title of a book can give you an idea of its value. Condition is important too. I read somewhere that a first edition copy of The Great Gatsby, by F Scott Fitzgerald in pristine condition, sold at auction for over $150,000.00.’
‘US or Australian,’ asked Bob and Charlie together.
‘Come on guys don’t make fun, it was US actually, but that’s not the point, it was a hell of a lot of money either way,’ said Lisa.
‘Well my book was just an old Agatha Christie,’ said Bob. ‘Certainly not in the same league as The Great Gatsby. And being a library book the condition would have been terrible. It’s ironic though because it was called, The Body in the Library.’
That made them all laugh, but then Lisa added, ‘you know some of those old books are quite valuable now. First editions of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, particularly the older editions, are commanding quite high prices. Most aren’t worth their original price, but some, due to scarcity, popularity of the author or the cover art just seem to increase in value. I’ll do some research on the book if you like.’
‘Oh that would be great, if you’re sure it’s not too much trouble,’ said Bob. ‘I’d really appreciate it. It didn’t even occur to me that the book may be valuable. Still doesn’t help me find it though.’
‘I’ll see what I can find out and I’ll call you tomorrow,’ Lisa promised.
The party broke up after that and with hugs and kisses all round and promises to meet up again soon they left. Bob started to lead Brenda back to the train station.
‘Oh no you don’t,’ said Brenda snatching her hand out of his. ‘You’re not getting out of it that easily. We don’t come into the city that often and you promised me the shops. I want to go to the sales.’
Bob nodded, so much for a quick getaway. Now the rest of the afternoon would be spent sitting in chairs of various degrees of comfort while Brenda shopped. He stopped at the first newsagent he came to; at least he could read a paper.
Later, as he sat down on one of the most torturous chairs ever made by man, Bob felt something squash in his pocket. He put his hand inside and felt the crumbs. Ah, it was the fortune cookie he’d shoved in there at lunchtime, he’d forgotten all about it. He pulled out the message and grinned. Never judge a book by its cover. Now it seemed even the Chinese were on his case!
They made it home just after dark. They got caught in a sudden downpour just as they were walking from the train station to their car. It left them drenched. Brenda shivered all the way home.
‘Let me out while you park the car,’ she said as soon as Bob pulled into the driveway. ‘I’ll go inside and put the heater on.’
Bob flicked the switch to open the garage door.
‘Well, will you look at that,’ said Bob in amazement.
‘Look at what?’ said Brenda.
‘My beautiful clean garage, that’s what.’
Brenda laughed. ‘Maybe you should be thanking Ms Hemingway after all,’ she said and ran inside still laughing.
Bob parked the car and then staggered inside with all Brenda’s parcels, dropping them on the floor in mock exhaustion. Brenda just ignored him and happily picked them up and took them into the bedroom. Bob was so predictable.
Bob went to check the answering machine.
One message. Bob pressed play. A loud shrill voice bounced around the room. It was Ms Hemingway’s.
‘I didn’t see you at the library today, Mr Carnarvon, I can only assume you are still looking for The Body in the Library. This message is just a reminder to let you know I haven’t forgotten.’
‘What the ...,’ Bob shouted, ‘this is intimidation.’
The phone rang again, making Bob jump. Surely it couldn’t be Ms Hemingway again? No, it was way too late but Bob let the phone ring anyway. If there was any possibility it could be Ms Hemingway, well, let the answering machine deal with it. He was in no mood to talk to her. But it was their son Max. Bob lunged for the phone just before Max hung up.
‘Hi, Son,’ he said, ‘sorry I didn’t answer straight away, I was screening the calls. Great to hear from you. How’s it all going?’
‘Fine Dad, why are you screening your phone calls?’
‘Too long to explain,’ replied Bob, ‘and not very interesting. Now tell me how you’ve been.’
‘Great, just great. I’ve decided it’s time to move out of Andy’s. I’ve found a really terrific apartment just a tram ride away from the office, and I’m moving in over the weekend. It’s time I stood on own two feet. Lots of people have broken relationships, I have to move on.’
Bob let out a sigh of relief. He had thought Max might have been ringing to say he as moving back home. Obviously something or someone had happened in the last week to make Max want his own place.
‘Met someone have we Max?’ his father enquired.
‘Am I that obvious,’ Max laughed. ‘I have actually, but I’m just taking it one day at a time. I’ll tell you more about her later. The real reason for this call is that I wanted to come and collect all my things from the garage. Now I’m on my own and have the extra space, it’s time I had my own history around me.’
‘Oh, right you are,’ said Bob. How to tell him it was all at the recycling tip?
Then inspiration struck, ‘Brenda,’ he called out, ‘Max’s on the phone. He wants to have a word.'