The Librarian: a short story by John Miskelly

Jul 15, 2014

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“So Lawrence, listen, I keep having this weird dream.”

“Can this wait Ryan? I gotta sort these returns.”

“It’s not that weird. I’m not, like, riding Mike Tyson bareback through Narnia or anything but I do think it—”

“Look at this,” Lawrence interrupted. “Practically a brand new edition and look at all these spine creases and these stupid drawings. I’ve always said you can tell a lot about someone by the way they treat communal property. It’s like tagging a new community mural, you know? It’s meant to be for everyone and you just treat it like a private doodle pad for your subconscious egomania. It’s borderline psychopathic. I bet you Tony Blair treats library books like total shit. Look. See, the glue’s already cracking. That’ll need a new spine in less than a year, I bet you.

“So what about this dream?”

Ryan, a portly second year of a nervous disposition, stared mutely at Lawrence, his hang-dog face arranged into a look of polite and humoring concern. He gathered himself. “Right, so. Everything’s really normal, I arrive at my lecture, I know it’s a Wednesday because I’ve got a coffee and I only drink coffee in the morning and we’re only ever in the King James building on Wednesday mornings. Also I know it’s raining because I’m wearing my high tops that don’t have the holes in them, which don’t look as good the ones that do have holes but do keep my feet dry—”

“Can I just maybe get the basic synopsis?” Ryan asked while scooping books two at a time off of the returns trolley.

“But isn’t it weird that I even remember this stuff, Lawrence? Normally I don’t remember anything about my dreams, not even the general narrative blurb, but I remember all of this stuff, every—”

“Maybe just the heavily abridged version?”

“Okay, so I go into my lecture theater and it’s completely empty. Then suddenly all these people from my course burst through the door, and they’re all in graduation gowns and they’re carrying Doctor Finley on their shoulders and everyone’s cheering and waving these giant novelty diplomas around—like the checks but graduate diplomas; and they’re framed—and making out with each other, and there’s cake and booze and streamers and T-shirt guns and whatnot. And I’m just sitting there like a fucking lemon in regular clothes wondering why everyone’s graduated a year and six months early and when the hell the exams even happened. So I strip off so I’m bollock naked and I reach into my bag and I don’t have any robes, and there’s no diploma. And then everybody’s laughing at me and someone hands me a diploma with a third degree honors in mopping up sick at Legoland —”

“…as noble and vital a profession as any other.”

“And then Professor Finley’s laughing at me and making out with Emma Newton and then someone fires a Thin Lizzy shirt into my face from that T-shirt gun and I wake up.”

Lawrence, a growing tower of newly returned books piling up against his chest, paused for the briefest of seconds to shoot a quizzical look at Ryan.

“Emma with the green highlights?”


“Big on ecstasy? Emma DMA?”

“I wouldn’t know that.”

“I guess you two go to different parties,” said Ryan, cramming a Foucault between the underside of his chin and a first year psychology book.

“I don’t go to any parties,” answered Ryan looking down at his feet and hoisting up the waistband of his canvas cargo shorts. From what Lawrence could deduce, he owned two pairs of these, which he wore intermittently throughout the year, regardless of season. “So what do you reckon it means? I’m guessing it’s something to do with anxiety, fear of failure.”

“If that is what it means then your subconscious has a very base sense of analogy, really no subtlety at all, actually.”

Lawrence dropped the pile onto the countertop with a thud, the top three volumes sliding off the top and landing with a clatter on the computer keyboard. Then, in mechanical and compliant obedience to eight years of muscle memory development, he began scanning the barcode of each book and stacking them neatly on the trolley behind him.

“I know it’s against my commercial interest to advise this—and I don’t do this lightly because there’re a lot of people who morally I should say this to but I don’t because I believe in equal treatment and doing so risks setting a moral precedent—but you should maybe entertain the possibility of taking less drugs.”

Ryan stared blankly back at him, nodding, humoring him, hearing but not listening. “Actually, I was going to ask for something to maybe mellow me out a bit? Just a cheeky eighth, just to de-clutter the garage a bit, clean out the filing cabinet, dust off the synapses; help me think things through.”

Ryan was drumming his fingers rapidly on the front of Lawrence’s desk and sweating like a small town cop on a big city sting.

“You know, for a fraction of the price you could get a bus to the country and just go on a nice long walk? Try the only drug you haven’t had and get some fresh air.”

Again, deliberately or otherwise, Ryan appeared not to hear. “Also, I’ll need a discount if that’s cool.”

“No fucking way,” said Lawrence, turning away and busying himself with the computer.

“Call it mates’ rates?”

“We’re not mates, Ryan. You just hang around the place I work. I’m a captive audience.”

Those drumming fingers were so persistent, that face so pleadingly desperate. Rent was due in three days, and the cat needed to be fed, and there were shows to attend, and movies to see, and if Ryan really couldn’t make up the difference, it was at least a sale…

“If you can find me a decent cup of coffee in the next fifteen minutes I’ll give you ten percent off.”

“Deal,” said Ryan, turning to leave and warbling off in the direction of the exit.

“But go off campus,” shouted Lawrence. “I’ll know if you went to the student union because the coffee there tastes like gooch juice.”


Behind the counter, beyond the shelves of returns, reservations, the damaged and forgotten, was Lawrence’s secret place. It was here, among the shadows, in two non-descript bookcases set at right angles to each other and covered by an old upturned study room table, that Lawrence kept his contraband merchandise. Books, uncataloged imposters to their legitimate library counterparts, lined the shelves, rescued by the handful from book shop one-pound bargain bins to be rehoused and repurposed.

Paperbacks could handle a dime bag of weed or two, but for larger orders hardbacks held their form better once the squares were cut from their central pages, squares just big enough to snuggly fit and conceal a rolled-up baggie. Orders could be placed at any time, but to save the back and forth between counter and stash Lawrence preferred to take them over the phone, the relevant books then stored under the counter until pick up time, when Lawrence would slip the illicit volume in amongst the genuine academia. The transaction was completed with the handing over of a folded bank note easily concealed under a swiftly surrendered library card.

As job satisfaction went it had plenty, not least of all an aggrandizing sense of centrality, of being the hub of something living, the heart of a transient beast. Here in the university library was where the two great competing ambitions of university life co-existed; personal growth—sexual, social, chemical—vying for supremacy over diplomas, exams, parental expectations, careers, self-betterment and the impending weight of adulthood. Between those shelves, across those study tables, baser instincts weighed heavy on bored and restless minds. And it was in Lawrence that the two existed simultaneously. Books and drugs, work and recreation reconciled, serving the student body on two fronts. “In what capacity, by who’s definition, will you expand your mind today?”

And the money was good, income fluctuating along a spectrum of consistently lucrative and overlapping short- and long-term business cycles. Thursdays and Fridays were reliable; exam season required careful stock managing to fully exploit all three stages (studying, during, blowouts); the ends of each semester were crucial, especially the first, to compensate for the lean period at the beginning of every new academic year when the third-year regulars moved on and a new set of nervous, uninitiated freshers arrived. The end of the academic year, the student body’s collective paroxysm of joy, relief, trepidation, and a bevy of other emotions that could only be expressed through the medium of hard partying, made up nearly half of Lawrence’s annual takings.

The free education was great too. On top of the four combined years of his own failed attempts to finish a degree, he had access to every book and journal in the university library and could sneak into any lecture on any subject on any given day off he fancied (he was a recognizable face on campus, but not recognizable enough for a hung-over, carpet-mouthed humanities lecturer to doubt he was one of his own students). Over the course of his tenure as fourth floor head librarian, Lawrence reckoned he’d completed the equivalent of probably two degrees worth of lectures, made up of a hodge-podge of cross-curricular modules and courses.

Sometimes things seemed so good Lawrence almost felt guilty. He was, after all, capitalizing, both financially and cerebrally, from the sale of what could potentially be (were they to get into the hands of the reckless and irresponsible, or not used in moderation, or if someone’s friends weren’t looking out for them properly, or maybe if someone decided to play the prick and push the limits; all scenarios outside of Lawrence’s control, of course) harmful narcotics. But it only took a quick visit to one of the many careers events held on campus, and a flick through a BP, Shell, or BAE Systems graduate prospectus to put things into a convenient perspective and banish any sense of creeping remorse.


“Hi Emma, how’s doctor Finley?”


“You just missed Ryan.”


“Well I say ‘missed.’ He was here a couple of hours ago. Don’t know where he got to.”

“I’d like my drugs, please.”

Lawrence ducked behind the counter and emerged a second later.

“You didn’t say on the phone so I assumed you wanted your usual. Here, inside Die Hard the novelization, surprisingly thick. You’ll need some other library books to make it a bit less conspicuous.”

Emma, a surly, handsome girl with little patience for bullshit and a healthy contempt for nearly everything, strode to the nearest shelf and grabbed three volumes at random.

“Can you not do that, please?” asked Ryan, wincing as Emma idly bent a Nietzsche into a taco U shape. “It warps the cover and strains the spine.”

Emma tossed the books disdainfully down on the countertop.

“I could die on the stuff you sell me, but you still care about these inanimate objects? Why can’t you deal on the union lawn like all the other wasters?”

“Because,” began Lawrence, leaning forward and crossing his arms on the countertop contentedly, “that wouldn’t be novel or romantic, would it? Plus I work here; sort of a two birds, one stone thing. Also I’m a professional, not a waster.”

“You know they’ve installed automatic check-out machines on every floor of the library except this one? It’s only a matter of time, and it’s going to look pretty weird everyone coming up to the counter to check out their (Emma performed two sets of exaggerated air commas, complete with a tantalizing twitch of the hips) library books when they could just as easily not have to interact with a person, specifically you.”

Lawrence let his arms slide further across the countertop towards Emma and lowered his voice conspiratorially.

“I’ve got a whole shelf back there just for the English department faculty. Do you have any idea how much pot they smoke after those dinner party beatnik fantasy circle jerks they have? They’d burn every Ginsberg first edition in the world before they let some machine replace me. Without me they’d have to buy their pot off some working class council estate Asian kid, and the intelligentsia don’t talk to poor people, Em. They’re too scared of them.”

Emma gave a dismissive raise of the eyebrows.

“Whatever. Every empire dies eventually. There’s a weak link in every chain.”

“Was there anything else you wanted? Any other clichés you’d like to drop?”

“Yeah, my sister needs a book on Tinder.”

“The dating app? You want a book about an app?”

“I thought I should at least ask; something to do with her philosophy thesis; degrees of separation or something like that. Can you believe you can base a thesis on this shit?”

“Actually, I think you can base a thesis on most kinds of shit. The other day I sold some stuff to a guy doing a math probability thing on Candy Crush.”

“That’s not a thesis, that’s a Lisa Simpson science project. It’s like, ‘You pay nine grand a year to be here. Take it fucking seriously, you whimsy-ass clown’.”

“I guess once you’ve paid the tuition fees they don’t give a fuck.”

“Yeah. Oh well. Bye.”

And with that she was gone.

Lawrence rested his face in the crux of his elbow and shut his eyes. It was a Tuesday, slow on both fronts. He drifted off into a doze, his mind replaying Emma’s air comma hip shake on repeat, elaborating and sensationalizing as the time passed, until the sharp sound of knuckles rat-a-tatting on wood pulled him upright. A man in a campus security polo shirt stood with his gut pressing into the countertop.

“I’m afraid you’re going to have to come down to the station with me, son.”

“But officer, campus security doesn’t have a station, just a room with a kettle at the back of the biology block.”

“Well, in that case, I’ll just take an eighth of marijuana please.”

“That, I can help you with officer.”

Lawrence disappeared below the counter again, emerging this time with a battered old Dan Brown.

“Shit Lawrence, couldn’t you have stashed it in something else?”

“There aren’t many Franzens knocking about the bargain bins, Steve.”

“What’s a Franzen?”

“Don’t worry about it,” replied Lawrence, once again taking up his sleeping position.

“If it’s quiet round here, the Christian Society are having a piss up in the King James common room. I could get you in if you want.”

“Free booze?” mumbled Lawrence.

“Pretty sure there is, yeah. But if not I can just confiscate some from some first-year halls. Do it—if anyone needs to check anything out they can use the electronic things downstairs.”

Minutes later Lawrence was climbing into the passenger seat of Steve’s “squad” car, emblazoned with the university emblem, and tearing off in the direction of the King James building.

Ryan missed him by mere seconds, coming round the corner of the library building and panting his way up to the fourth floor. The coffee he held in his hand may have been lukewarm at best, but he’d held up his end of the bargain, and with some effort, too. So, with a quick glance to check for prying eyes, he stretched forward onto his tip toes, reaching behind and under the counter, and fumbled blindly around for retribution. His fingertip brushed along the plastic jacket of a hardback, which he gripped hold of as best he could, and yanked upwards. But his reach was only long enough to pinch the cover and a few pages, and the book flapped like an unbalanced bird in Ryan’s clumsy hand.

With a quiet thud, a large baggie of coke dropped from the volume onto the carpet. He picked it up and stood for a moment in a state of panicked dilemma, failing to notice the slender stream of white powder falling like dry snow from the impact split, or the neat little cone forming on the floor. Discovering it at last, he kicked out instinctively at the offending mound, sending it fanning out across the carpet like a paint splash. For a full five minutes he kicked and ground away at the powder with the sole of his shoe, dispersing it the best he could, until he became convinced he could hear voices coming from a nearby study room. He fled in sweaty panic, but not before tossing the book, the bag, and the coffee cup over the counter. There, in full view of anyone who might approach it, the three substances merged, a golden shadow creeping its way across the pure white powder, stains of muddy brown expanding across the pages of the hardback.

As the door of the fourth floor slammed behind Ryan a new quiet descended over the library, and Lawrence’s chain creaked with anticipation.

* * *

I started this story probably sometime near the beginning of May and submitted it on June 4. Two days later I went to see 22 Jump Street on the day of its UK release,  June 6  (probably to tie in with the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day landings no doubt). Around about the beginning of the third act of that film the whole premise of the above is used as a major plot device, right down to cutting the little squares out of the pages to stash the drugs. It ruined a good film and completely destroyed my sense of accomplishment. So fuck you Jonah Hill, fuck you.

John Miskelly studied at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne. It was largely a waste of time and money and he hasn’t made a good decision since. More writing can be found on this website and at

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