As he did every morning, Dan walked down the red carpet toward the entrance of the National Library, knowing that the whole world waited for him behind those doors. There was a beautiful stillness in this moment, a superiority which thrilled him as he walked along that strip of red, as though toward an audience hungry for his arrival. But once he opened the door, he found that he merely annoyed his audience, that they were impatient with him, that all they wanted to do was shuffle past him, and pollute that beautiful carpet with their ungrateful feet.
It was a thankless task, opening up a library. Those on the other side of the door didn’t realize how powerful he was; that he could choose to peep through that keyhole for hours, leaving them in the cold. Hoarding all the knowledge for himself. No one appreciated his power, or realized that he was, by very definition, an authority figure. But such was the nature of library-goers, Dan realized. They were locked away in their own worlds, living in the archives of their own minds. To these people, a porter was never going to be anything more than a guy who opened and closed a door. The one who let them in and let them out again.
One would expect that each day at a national institution brought with it new challenges. The bitter truth was that it did not—they were the same faces, every day; the same small mouths whispering their even smaller requests. Every morning, he’d be amazed by the fact that these people wanted to spend a clear, beautiful day inside a library, that they queued up in bright sunshine in order to nab their place in the dark. He had archived them into categories in his mind. Some of them were lifers: those in it for the long haul—long-term-library-lovers. Others were part-timers, sheltering in the darkness until whatever it was they were working on—that article, that PhD, or a family tree—was complete. Others were surfers, roamers, library loungers: those who came and went like the wind, who blew in because the library seemed like a better option, because a library was free, because it judged no one and was the world’s friend. Then there were the mappers: a special breed in waxed jackets and thick spectacles who came to pore over yet another medieval map of something long gone, or to stare at a patch of existing land on paper rather than experiencing it in the great outdoors. Those were the worst, he thought; those who chose to lose themselves in a library because it was safer than losing themselves in life, because here, they knew where the door was.
Which is precisely, Dan thought, where he came in.
Every morning, the library-goers pretended to give each other space on those steps, but once that door creaked open they would happily trample over one another in order to get to their chosen desks. They bickered every morning over a corner of a table, competing for certain patches of mahogany, complaining about the angle of a seat, the crookedness of a chair leg. They bemoaned the way the sun poured in through the tall windows and obscured their screens; some said that an angle of sunlight was detrimental to their thought process, that too much sun—or too little—impacted their creativity, that many a great idea was known to shrivel up in sunshine.
This was why Dan liked to have a bit of fun at their expense, especially at those who came at nine when they knew full well that the doors didn’t open until half past. His chosen victim today was the blonde girl who was compiling a study of all the nation’s firsts: the first strict-meter poet; the first language activist; the first woman in the country to be registered legally as a man. Primacy was simply her way of life. Her voice was the first to be heard every morning, she was the first face he saw when he opened the door. Her boyfriend, a rather second-rate creature with a lock of hair that closed like a curtain over his left eye, was usually dragged along behind her, his hand firmly in hers.
“Can I see your library card?” he asked her.
“I was here yesterday,” she barked at him, as other library-goers whooshed past her, a first, second, third, and fourth contender for the largest desk in the reading room.
“It’s for security purposes,” he said. She fumbled in her bag for the card. “We need to be careful these days. We’re living in the age of terror.”
“I didn’t bring my card. I didn’t need it yesterday, or the day before. Or the day before that, for that matter. Don’t you remember me? I’ve been coming here for six months!”
“No, sorry, I don’t,” he said to the face that was so familiar he’d seen her in dreams. “You’ll need to make a request for a day ticket. Over there, love.”
He tried to direct her toward the library reception but ended up touching her elbow, the tip of his finger catching the sleeve of her cotton print dress. Her skin swelled indignantly beneath it.
“Did you just touch me?”
Dan tried to move away, but it was too late.
“I think he just touched me inappropriately!” The girl turned to her boyfriend for support. “You saw that, didn’t you? He touched me indecently, almost . . . threateningly.”
“I suppose he did,” said the subordinate boyfriend. “A licentious touch . . . a dirty grapple.”
By now the library-goers had stopped in their tracks. They congregated around the prima donna.
“Just go get your ticket at reception,” he said, not wanting to let her win. “Then you can go in.”
“And make a sexual harassment claim while I’m there?”
She stared at him, her green eyes flaring.
“Just go in,” he whispered, defeated.
She flounced off, no longer concerned with him, cantering up the red carpet toward her table. Her lover stopped and lowered his voice.
“You got any . . . ?” His words dried up in the air.
“Not today,” Dan answered, moving him on before the next library-goer came too close.
“But you said . . .”
“Come and see me later, OK? At lunchtime.”
The boyfriend walked off. Dan sighed. Ungrateful little beggar. Nothing was ever enough for him. But then, Dan supposed it wasn’t the best idea in the world to start dealing drugs to students. Or at least, to this one, when his girlfriend was in the business of writing down anything that made anyone a maverick, a first-timer. Dan was pretty sure that the lockers he kept his stash in hadn’t contained that amount of skunk in the entirety of their shiny, veneered lives.
Things were usually quiet after the initial flood of visitors. By nine forty-five, there was hardly a soul to be seen. He stood by the empty lockers, opening and closing their doors, staring into the little rectangular shadows, pretending to be checking things, waiting for something to happen. Hoping for some kind of event or incident, just to shake up his day. They’d been training them recently—all the porters—to double as security guards. There was talk of a terrorist attack on the smaller countries, now that all the big ones had already been hit. But Dan knew it wasn’t coming his way. Not in this end-of-the line seaside town, with its one national institution on top of a hill. A library wasn’t a target, no matter how much they went on about it.
Today, his boss, known as the Arch Porter, was taking a group of colleagues down to the city for even more security training. He’d cherry-picked the ones he wanted to progress to the next security level, and in fifteen minutes, they would all assemble on the red carpet, hands in their pockets. They’d all be giving him this look—the look that told him not to get ideas above his station.
Dan didn’t want to get above his station. He was happy minding the station.
He knew he wasn’t really being left in charge. He was being left alone so that he could have the space and time to cock up. Everything Dan did could be watched via CCTV from the government buildings in the city. The excuse for leaving him behind was that he understood the technology; he could be responsible for linking them up.
“You’ll be fine, won’t you?” the Arch Porter asked, his mustache quivering atop his upper lip. “It’ll be a good opportunity for you, make sure you take advantage of it, prove yourself. It’s about time.”
Dan smiled back at him, knowing full well how he’d take advantage of it, how he’d prove himself. He knew how the day would go, or more to the point, how their day would go. Far from here, the Arch Porter would get drunk on free wine served up to him by the government and gorge himself on fresh seafood served up on a silver platter, a million dead eyes staring at him. He’d get to his feet and make a speech, he’d talk about the sophistication of a little security device in his hand that could lock people in as well as lock people out, and the porters and politicians around him would applaud like seals even if they weren’t really listening. Then, the First Minister would get up and go out and talk to the press—she’d talk about the nation’s institutions taking the future into their own hands, how they were safeguarding their heritage, their culture, she’d talk about how the nation was ready for an attack and protected against it. How they’d cut down on their carbon emission and how paper had become secondary to cultural preservation. And she’d be reading it all off a little teleprompter without thinking much about what she was saying, because she was still hungry—because seafood never really fills that hole in your stomach, at least not if you’re talking the whole way through lunch and sharing the table with greedy, good-for-nothing porters who don’t realize there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Dan believed it had all started going wrong when they took away his keys. He missed the jangling of a good set of keys in his hand, the cold coupling of steel and skin. He liked the sound they made as he got nearer to a door; the way keys announced an arrival. They were macho little stick men in his hand, while the security device he used now was more like a virginal nun, singing a single note of openness that was so quiet, one barely noticed that the door had been unlocked.
Dan was constantly made to feel inadequate in front of the other porters. The Arch Porter had caught him smoking a spliff once around the back with a few research students (the second-rate boyfriend and his third-rate post-doc mates) and that had been it—he’d been singled out for constant reproval.
“I hope you haven’t forgotten, my boy,” the Arch Porter said, his stomach straining against his trouser belt. “That I trusted you, I gave you a chance.”
If only Dan could forget it. It was a constant weapon to be used against him; the way he had broken the trust so freely granted when he first came to work here. He knew that institutions did not hire people with criminal records; and that was something he needed to be grateful for. But he also knew they had been short-staffed at the time—that it made sense to drag the community-service-part-timer over to the interviews and force him to stay. People like Dan, they said, were used to institutions, and it made sense for him to substitute one establishment for another.
And in some ways, Dan thought, it wasn’t unlike prison at all. He was fed at regular intervals. He walked up and down the same old strip of corridor. He was treated coldly and apathetically by those around him. He spent days staring out of windows that were too high to properly see out of, wishing he were somewhere else.
The Arch Porter and his minions walked past Dan, one by one, out into the sunshine and into the white van that boasted the library and the government’s logos. Dan watched them on the CCTV camera behind his desk, mocking the self-important way the Arch Porter now carried himself; his head thrown back to emphasize his lack of tie, his new, crisp corporate shirt and blazer ruffling uncomfortably around his blubber. This was what happened when a country like Dan’s finally formed its own government; the funniest people were put in positions of power. He watched as the porters were guided into the van, one by one, before the white gloss of the van doors obscured them completely. The only creatures visible now were the Arch Porter at the wheel and the Head Librarian, who was now (Dan ascertained from another camera) approaching in her stiletto heels.
The Arch Porter shuffled out of the van to open the door for her, a gesture he knew she found distasteful but which she tolerated all the same. Once the Arch Porter had shut the door on her, he stared up at the CCTV camera, as if he knew that Dan was watching him. He raised his radio and spoke directly into it.
“We’ll be watching you, Matthews!” he shouted. “Don’t you forget that, OK? Now link those cameras the second we leave, do you hear me? The rest of them will be watching the library from the back of the van on their tablets.”
Dan smirked at the thought of what the porters in question would be watching on their tablets. It would not be him. Not really. It would be a version of him, taken from a few days ago.
“OK!” he replied. “Enjoy yourselves. Over and out.”
He heard another grunt before the final deadening click. He moved toward his desk and dialed the link to the government’s IT offices. He heard the familiar voice of Teleri, the CCTV officer, coming through the loudspeaker, a husky voice that spoke of city living. He knew that he was at a disadvantage, hearing only her voice each time while she saw his whole being, illuminated on a large screen in front of her. He was still expected to flirt into the unknown darkness. Although Teleri tried to keep her voice youthful and jolly, he could tell she was not young and there was a constant tremor in her voice that told him she was not really jolly, either.
“OK, sweetness,” she said. “What have you got for me?”
“They want to link conference room 340 to the library’s CCTV,” he said.
He heard laughter, the pretense of joy rattling in a windpipe.
“Don’t they trust you, sweetness? You must be very, very bad.”
“Why don’t you come here one day? Maybe then you’ll find out,” he replied, matching her performance, though it made him feel sick to his stomach. He could somehow make out her contours through his blindness, the rubbery sides of her, the blouse that was too small, wrinkling at the bust.
“I’ll wait till you come here,” she said, sounding faintly alarmed.
He heard a buzz as Teleri linked the cameras to the screens.
“Oh, I like your hair like that,” she said.
Dan froze. The footage from last week had come on sooner than he’d expected and now she was staring at another version of him with freshly cut hair, sitting behind his desk, looking down at his phone. To say another thing would ruin his whole plan. He watched his week-old self, hoping that something in his gestures would somehow correspond with Teleri’s conversation. The week-old him began eating an apple with gusto. He ate one every break time, remembering how jealous he’d been of apples when they were handed to him in prison, simply because they had come from outside and were free in a way he was not. They made him so depressed he let them rot on his windowsill. Now he could devour the little fuckers.
“Well I haven’t got all day to sit here and watch you eating an apple, sweetness, I don’t care how good-looking you are.”
And with that she was gone. His plan was set in place. He watched as the week-old Dan finished his once-free-now-dead apple and tossed it away into the future.
A future where there was no one watching him.
From Y Llyfrgell. © Fflur Dafydd. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2019 by Fflur Dafydd. All rights reserved.