The familiar smell of old books is the smell of dust; book dust has a peculiar, a particular, smell: slightly damp, organic, but not unpleasant. To those who frequent old libraries and second hand book shops, it is a smell redolent of promise, of information to be disclosed and stories to be told. The smell is even more pungent when associated with manuscripts written on parchment, rather than books printed on paper. But there are dangers: the dust is dust from the pages of the books but also dust from the skin of those who read them. The two dusts mingle. The reader and the book become one and all turn to dust.
‘Do you think she ever leaves the library?’ asked Tom, one of the young people sitting at the central table in the canteen.
‘No, she lives here. Sleeps up on the fourth floor,’ his friend answered.
‘No – there’s a particularly dark corner on the first floor – I nearly fell over her once,’ another friend suggested. ‘That’s probably where she lives.’
They laughed with the casual, caustic cruelty of youth; but then the fourth member of the group pointed out, ‘We only know she’s here every day because so are we.’
They were all postdoctoral fellows, eking out a living with bursaries and some teaching as they eked out their cups of coffee, making them last as long as possible when they knew they should be back in the reading room. They felt strangely impermanent; no longer on a specific course or working towards a degree, they were on the threshold of an academic career, maybe of glittering prizes. The unknown future lay before them with all its promise and uncertainty. They clung together in the familiarity of the warm canteen: when they had been undergraduates they had rarely come into the university library, now it seems they rarely left, and whenever they were there they always saw the same woman.
As they matured, and gained experience and confidence, filled out into their adult personhoods, she grew older, and became greyer, thinner. There was less of her; she seemed to be turning to dust. She belonged to the library as much as the books did. She haunted the stacks. She was seen in the manuscript room, the rare books room, the stacks of Middle English literature. After the years she had been walking the corridors and reading the books of the library, she was still searching, looking for the answer.
The answer to her life, maybe? It hadn’t been a happy or satisfying life. She had always lived in Cambridge. She had been a dutiful daughter and hardworking, meticulous student. But she had a romantic streak – a longing for excitement and romance. She had read the Arthurian legends – Mallory and Chretien de Troyes – sitting on her narrow bed in the small room at the top of her family home, and longed for her own knight to rescue her, to take her away. She wanted to leave home to study at Oxford, in the shadow of Tolkien, but her parents, reluctant enough for her to study for a degree instead of training to be a teacher or a nurse, insisted that she stay at Cambridge. So she studied medieval English literature and, like so many young women before her, fell in love with Lancelot and Gawain, and longed to be rescued from the mundane reality of her daily life by the romance of at least a metaphorical knight in shining armour.
Elaine – for that was her name, a name that itself belonged to medieval romance – found a knight who was not only metaphorical, but the son of a baronet, of moderate height and quite handsome despite the weak chin, with pale hair that flopped over his broad forehead. To Elaine, the middle-class daughter of parents themselves brought up in working-class homes, he was as exotic as a dragon or a unicorn. She fell hopelessly, desperately in love with him, and he promised her the world. They met through the debating society and he, because he had spent a year at Sandhurst, was in the year below her at university. Elaine stayed on at Cambridge to study for her M.Phil. while he – Hugo – was in his final year. Everything seemed to be falling into place: she would proceed from her M.Phil. to her Ph.D. and embark on an academic career; he would, when he had completed his degree, do ‘something in the city’ and make plenty of money so, in a few years, they could marry. Eventually she would be both Doctor and Lady. He hadn’t actually asked her to marry him; it was assumed by, she thought, both of them that that was the way it would work out. They were so happy together, why shouldn’t it continue?
But romances never run smoothly; it is not in their nature, and it was not in the nature of a baronet’s son who intended to be successful in the city to marry an impoverished doctoral student no matter how pretty she may be. And he suspected – rightly as it turned out – that her prettiness was the superficial prettiness of youth. As she grew older it faded; her face grew lined, her slim body became thin and her pert breasts sagged, her pale blonde hair became colourless. But those changes may have been due to disappointment as much as time, for, just before his finals and when Elaine should have been working on her dissertation, he abandoned her. He pointed out to her that they were soon to go their separate ways – he to the granite banks of the city and she to the ivory towers of academe – but the truth was he was bored of her. She tried to argue, to point out that she could study in London, that there was no reason for them to part, but the more she argued the more exasperated and impatient he became, and his indifference towards her turned to positive dislike.
Hugo got as good a degree as he needed and became successful in the city, marrying a beautiful woman, wealthy in her own right, who produced two sons and a daughter within the first five years of their marriage. He succeeded to the baronetcy and inherited a handsome old house in the Hertfordshire countryside when he was in middle age. Elaine didn’t finish her M.Phil. Her tutor was never sure what had happened; she just lost all interest in her work. Instead, she trained at Homerton to be a teacher and so continued to live in the thin house in a back street of Cambridge where she had lived all her life; when her father died she supported her mother who had little interest in life apart from her own comfort. She never asked why Elaine hadn’t pursued an academic career; she cared only that she was at home now, looking after her. ‘After all,’ she said to anyone who would listen, ‘I looked after her when she was a baby didn’t I?’
Elaine taught literature to nice girls in a private school in Cambridge, but she became fixed in her ways and found the changes in the curriculum difficult to adapt to and mourned the lack of opportunity to teach middle English literature – the Arthurian romances she still loved. So when the opportunity arose, she took early retirement. Her mother had died by now and living alone in the house she needed little money – her retirement pay was plenty. But she was used to routine and a self-imposed discipline, and began to spend her days in the university library, arriving there at 9.30 when the reading room opened and usually staying until 5 p.m. She left early on Fridays when she shopped for the weekend, and sometimes she would go to a matinee performance at the Arts theatre or attend evensong at one of the colleges. She wasn’t religious but she enjoyed the singing, and appreciated the elevated, spiritual atmosphere of the chapels. King’s she found too grand, and preferred to go one of the smaller colleges. Occasionally she found a reason – or excuse – to consult one of the manuscripts held at the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, where she breathed in the musty, book-dust smell deeply, but usually she worked in the reading room, or the Rare Books room of the university library. Most of the nineteenth-century editions of the early English texts that interested her had been moved to the Rare Books room – their rarity having more to do with the frequency of their being consulted rather than any intrinsic value. The Rare Books room was temperature-controlled and kept at a specific humidity; the light was bright but not dazzling; the tables were spacious and had power points for laptops. Book supports and ‘snakes’ to keep the pages open were provided. Some of the magic of old books had been dispelled with the dust, but some of the old English texts had been overlooked and remained in a dark corner behind the lift in the English literature stacks on the first floor.
It was here that, eventually, Elaine found what she was looking for. It was a book of talismans and charms, spells and incantations. There was some question about its authenticity; the introduction, by the dilettante late nineteenth-century editor, claimed that the fifteenth-century manuscript from which the text was apparently taken was a copy of a much earlier one, with elements of Anglo-Saxon magic and sorcery, but the provenance was unclear and those who bothered with the text at all suggested that even the sole manuscript, kept in private hands and rarely available for inspection, was a nineteenth-century forgery, a piece of wishful thinking in keeping with the Victorian romantic vision of the middle ages, something akin to the early Gothic novels which always claimed to be stories found in dusty, forgotten manuscripts. Despite her training, the authenticity of the text – or lack of it – didn’t worry Elaine. It provided what she wanted, what she needed, and she was convinced that her belief in the spells would make them work.
It took her time to decipher the text and collect together what she needed. Hugo had rarely written to her, but she had a couple of postcards he had sent to her, and she had kept, in a bottom drawer in her room, a scarf he once left in her room: there were still some of his pale hairs clinging to it. She also needed to light a pure beeswax candle with a flint, which took some practice, and collect together certain herbs, but she was grateful that ? , with its similarly forked root, was considered a suitable alternative to mandrake and that she could find hemp seeds in a shop that sold food for wild birds without having to resort to buying marijuana behind one of the student pubs.
The first of May dawned clear and fresh – the sort of morning on which knights set out on quests and maids rose early to bathe their faces in dew, but were waylaid by the errant knights. Tom also rose early, but with the intention of writing up his notes before finalising some references in the library as soon as it opened. He was giving a paper at the big international medieval conference in Kalamazoo and was anxious that it should be as good as he could make it. He was talking about the prohibition of sorcery in the thirteenth century and had trawled through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century editions of medieval sermons which were not yet digitised to find evidence. Sorcery in the Middle Ages sounded sexy, but the reality was long, boring hours in the Rare Books and manuscript rooms. This morning he wanted to get back to the Rare Books room to find the final, clinching but elusive proof of his thesis amidst the volumes of early sermons. It was tedious work and by mid-morning he was feeling sleepy; he yawned and stretched. He was beginning to wonder whether he had the determination, and stamina, to make a successful academic. When the fire alarm sounded he didn’t know whether to be grateful for the break in his day, or cross that his work had been interrupted. The alarm was being taken seriously – all the readers were ushered through a back door and down two flights of stone stairs to exit at the side of the building into a miserable drizzle. The clear morning with its promise of warm sunshine had changed while Tom was in the library and he didn’t have a coat with him – it was typical of this mercurial summer that the weather should have changed so much. He had his laptop and notes with him in the clear plastic bag that was allowed into the library and stood with his arms crossed over his chest, trying to keep warm. Many of those waiting gave up and wandered away to find shelter and coffee. Tom needed to continue with his work but was longing to find refuge in a warm pub with a pint of bitter and a thick cheese and pickle sandwich. He really was too fond of his own comfort for this esoteric and arcane calling. Looking up at the cliff like walls of the library, Tom could see no flames, but the alarm seemed genuine – he had heard people talking of smoke and strange smells. A fire engine turned up with sirens blazing. If Tom hadn’t been cold, wet and miserable he might have enjoyed the excitement. It was clear no-one was going to be allowed back into the library for some time and he wandered back to his college to use the library there, where he could at least write up some of the notes he had made on his laptop. He was reluctant to take the bus out of town to the house he was sharing with a few friends – he knew it would be a grimy, untidy mess; no-one had time for housework and even the tiny garden was full of rubbish, and he knew that if he went to the pub that would be the rest of the day gone. As it was, he managed to come up with a few sentences that sounded good, without making any grand claims he couldn’t defend.
Pleased with himself, he returned to the university library the next day and listened to the gossip in the tea room to find out what had happened. But nobody seemed to know for sure. There had been enough smoke to set off the alarm, but no sign of a fire in the area – the dark corner of the north wing – that it had come from. Those who had been working there talked of foul smells; some even said there had been a flash. Could it have been a failed attempt at a bomb?
‘Who would blow up the stacks of Old and Middle English literature?’ Tom’s friend asked. ‘If I wanted to cause trouble, I would leave a bomb in the lockers – and get out of here quickly.’
‘And why the library? All the the tourists are at King’s or Trinity.’ Bored with the story already, Tom looked at the newspaper he had brought in with him for some new source of interest and entertainment. The first few pages were concerned with the imminent general election and the dust blowing from an Icelandic volcano. Strange, that dust – you could look up at a clear sky and se no sign of it, yet it was enough to ground all the aeroplanes in Europe. On page seven, there was the story of the disappearance of a financier – there were suggestions of irregularities, insider-dealing or back-handers that had got out of hand. Others were investigating an old story about a fling he had had with his children’s nanny – and raising the old, irresistible ghost of Lord Lucan. The financier had been a baronet, but there was no dead body and, ultimately, no viable scandal. The story, it seems, didn’t, as the saying went, ‘have legs’. The gossip columnists were desperately trying to make something of a rather trivial and mundane story – an apparently successful man turned out not to be as successful as he wanted people to believe; he had lost money in the recent financial crisis and his marriage was shaky, but there was no suggestion that he had done anything illegal. He had, no doubt, simply wanted to disappear, to reinvent himself.
It was a few days later that Tom mentioned, casually, that he hadn’t seen the odd woman for a long time.
‘She probably just faded away – turned to dust. She was getting thinner every time I saw her.’
‘I think I saw her in the North wing – on the day there was all that smoke,’ another friend said.
‘Do you think she disappeared in a puff of smoke?’ the other laughed.
Tom left them and went to continue his paper; the staff in the Rare Books room hadn’t been able to find the last book he needed; it was possible, they suggested, that it hadn’t been moved with the rest of the series from the North Wing but may still be there. He went off to the dark stacks behind the lift. He turned on the timed light switch, but the light flickered and went out. He worked his way along the shelves in the gloom, peering at the shelfmarks till he identified the place where the book should be. There was a slight gap there and he moved the books on either side in case the one he wanted had somehow got pushed to the back or returned to the wrong place. As he did, a pile of dust was dislodged, some of it blowing up into the air. It caught at the back of his throat and for a brief moment he felt as though he was being choked. He gasped for breath and retreated from the corner hacking and coughing, his eyes streaming. He breathed deeply to clear his throat and found a tissue in his pocket to wipe his eyes. He noticed that his hands were covered with the dust, a sticky, dark-grey dust. He went to the lavatory to try to wash it off, but somehow it stuck to him, ingrained in his skin. Under his skin. It was days before his hands looked clean again.
And in days the quiet, ageing woman would be forgotten – there was nothing left to remind anyone of her – and the newspaper reporters would soon get tired with the non-story of the disappearance of Sir Hugo Burgess, his story was brushed aside like dust. But readers who used that corridor in the North wing continued to complain of a strange smell and a curious dustiness that, no matter how scrupulously the cleaners dusted and vacuumed still clung to the hands and got up the noses of anyone who ventured into that dark corner.
© Cate Gunn