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The Library of Lost and Found
Author:Phaedra Patrick

The Library of Lost and Found

Phaedra Patrick


1

Valentine’s Day


As always, Martha Storm was primed for action. Chin jutted, teeth gritted, and a firm grip on the handle of her trusty shopping trolley. Her shoulders burned as she struggled to push it up the steep slope toward the library. The cobblestones underfoot were slippery, coated by the sea mist that wafted into Sandshift each evening.

She was well prepared for the evening’s event. It was going to be perfect, even though she usually avoided Valentine’s Day. Wasn’t it a silly celebration? A gimmick, to persuade you to buy stuffed furry animals and chocolates at rip-off prices. Why, if someone ever sent her a card, she’d hand it back and explain to the giver they’d been brainwashed. However, a job worth doing was worth doing well.

Bottles chinked in her trolley, a stuffed black bin bag rustled in the breeze and a book fell off a pile, its pages fluttering like a moth caught in a spider’s web.

She’d bought the supermarket’s finest rosé wine, flute glasses and napkins printed with tiny red roses. Her alarm clock sounded at 5:30 a.m. that morning to allow her time to bake heart-shaped cookies, including gluten-free ones for any book lovers who had a wheat allergy. She’d brought along extra copies of the novel for the author to sign.

One of the best feelings in the world came when she received a smile of appreciation, or a few grateful words. When someone said, “Great job, Martha,” and she felt like she was basking in sunshine. She’d go to most lengths to achieve that praise.

If anyone asked about her job, she had an explanation ready. “I’m a guardian of books,” she said. “A volunteer at the library.” She was an event organizer, tour guide, buyer, filer, job adviser, talking clock, housekeeper, walking encyclopedia, stationery provider, recommender of somewhere nice to eat lunch and a shoulder to cry on—all rolled into one.

And she loved each part, except for waking people up at closing time, and the strange things she found used as bookmarks (a nail file, a sexual health clinic appointment card and an old rasher of bacon).

As she rattled past a group of men, all wearing navy-and-yellow Sandshift United football scarves, Martha called out to them, “Don’t forget about the library event tonight.” But they laughed among themselves and walked on.

As she eventually directed the trolley toward the small, squat library building, Martha spied the bulky silhouette of a man huddled by the front door. “Hello there,” she called out, twisting her wrist to glance at her watch. “You’re fifty-four minutes early...”

The dark shape turned its head and seemed to look at her, before hurrying away and disappearing around the corner.

Martha trundled along the path. A poster flapped on the door and author Lucinda Lovell beamed out from a heavily filtered photo. The word Canceled was written across her face in thick black letters.

Martha’s eyes widened in disbelief. Her stomach lurched, as if someone had shoved her on an escalator. Using her hand as a visor, she peered into the building.

All was still, all was dark. No one was inside.

With trembling fingers, she reached out to touch the word that ruined all her planning and organizing efforts of the last couple of weeks. Canceled. The word that no one had bothered to tell her.

She swallowed hard and her organized brain ticked as she wondered who to call. The area library manager, Clive Folds, was taking his wife to the Lobster Pot bistro for a Valentine’s dinner. He was the one who’d set up Lucinda’s appearance, with her publisher. Pregnant library assistant, Suki McDonald, was cooking a cheese and onion pie for her boyfriend, Ben, to persuade him to give things another try between them.

Everything had been left for Martha to sort out.

Again.

“You live on your own, so you have more time,” Clive had told her, when he’d asked her to take charge of the event preparations. “You don’t have personal commitments.”

Martha’s chest tightened as she remembered his words, and she let her arms fall heavy to her sides. Turning back around, she took a deep breath and forced herself to straighten her back. Never mind, she thought. There must be a good reason for the cancelation, a serious illness, or perhaps a fatal road accident. Anyone who turned up would see the poster. “Better just set off home, and get on with my other stuff,” she muttered.

Leaning over her trolley, Martha grabbed hold of its sides and heaved it around to face in the opposite direction. As she did, a clear plastic box slid out, crashing to the path. When she stooped to pick it up, the biscuits lay broken inside.

It was only then she noticed the brown paper parcel propped against the bottom of the door. It was rectangular and tied with a bow and a crisscross of string, probably left there by the shadowy figure. Her name was scrawled on the front. She stooped down to pick it up, then pressed her fingers along its edges. It felt like a book.

Martha placed it next to the box of broken biscuits in her trolley. Really, she tutted, the things readers tried to avoid paying their late return fees.

She wrenched back on the trolley as it threatened to pull her down the hill. The brown paper parcel juddered inside as she negotiated the cobbles. She passed sugared almond–hued houses, and the air smelled of salt and seaweed. Laughter and the strum of a Spanish guitar sounded from the Lobster Pot and she paused for a moment. Martha had never eaten there before. It was the type of place frequented by couples.

Through the window, she glimpsed Clive and his wife with their foreheads almost touching across the table. Candles lit up their faces with a flickering glow. His mind was obviously not on the library.

If she’s not careful, Mrs. Fold’s hair is going to set on fire, Martha thought, averting her eyes. I hope there are fire extinguishers in the dining area. She fumbled in her pocket for her Wonder Woman notepad and made a note to ask the bistro owner, Branda Taylor.

When Martha arrived home, to her old gray stone cottage, she parked the trolley outside. She had found it there, abandoned a couple of years ago, and she adopted it for her ongoing mission to be indispensable, a Number One neighbor.

Bundling her stuff out of the trolley and into the hallway, she stooped and arranged it in neat piles on the floor, then wound her way around the wine bottles. She found a small free space on the edge of her overcrowded dining table for the brown paper parcel.

A fortnight ago, on a rare visit, her sister, Lilian, had stuck her hands on her hips as she surveyed the dining room. “You really need to do something about this place, Martha,” she’d said, her eyes narrowing. “Getting to your kitchen is like an obstacle course. Mum and Dad wouldn’t recognize their own home.”

Her sister was right. Betty and Thomas Storm liked the house to be spic and span, with everything in its place. But they had both died five years ago, and Martha had remained in the property. She found it therapeutic, after their passing, to try to be useful and fill the house with stuff that needed doing.

The brown velour sofa, where the three of them had watched quiz shows, one after another, night after night, was now covered in piles of things. Thomas liked the color control on the TV turned up, so presenters’ and actors’ faces glowed orange. Now it was covered by a tapestry that Martha had offered to repair for the local church.

“This is all essential work,” she told Lilian, casting her hand through the air. She patiently explained that the shopping bags, plastic crates, mountains of stuff on the floor, stacked high on the table and against the wall, were jobs. “I’m helping people out. The boxes are full of Mum and Dad’s stuff—”

“They look like the Berlin Wall.”