The long summer afternoons stretched into the evenings like a tabby awakening from its nap. The school holidays were here. So were the nights she’d spend reading until the rosy dawn. She’d get through entire books in one night, she’d boast as I brushed her long hair. I’d suppress a smile and vow not to be a mother who’d start a row before breakfast. She’d yawn in the queues at the ice-cream van or as she rode her lilac bicycle from the lamppost outside our semi-detached house to the telephone box and back. The livid traces of dusk under her eyes had already started to bloom.
On library days we’d skip breakfast to get there at opening time – what’s more, working night shifts turned my stomach. The sound of its automatic doors reminded me of the hospital lobby. Yet here, I liked that no-one was in a rush to leave. Before I’d have chance to stub out my cigarette, she’d tug on my hand and ask if she could go in ahead of me. I’d always nod and consider whether I had time for another.
The early morning rays would skip through the ceiling-to-floor windows, catching schools of dust particles as they settled on the brows of listing books. Through the gaps in the shelves I’d steal glimpses of her pink finger trailing across spines and of the tall pile of books growing at her feet. We could spend all day here if we wanted to.
There was something so liberating about a public place of shared knowledge. I’d never told anyone, but I’d always wanted to be a librarian. Even thinking about it made my cheeks flush. Yet it was my older sister who my parents chose to go to university. And by the age of sixteen I’d left home and got a job as a care assistant, determined to show them I could get by on my own.
Those days, in the less frequented corners of the library, I’d become the librarian I never was in a silent ward of books. There, scanning from right to left, head tilted, I’d recite authors’ surnames on in-breaths praying for a P among the Cs. It was these misplaced titles that interested me. The ones that were almost read. Perhaps their title too dull, blurb too weak. I’d greet each one into my guard, testing its weight with both hands. Their imprint was a burden I bore with a pride akin to that of a new mother. Only then, after our palm-to-cover acquaintance, would I begin to categorise and alphabetise.
I’d normally come across her crossed-legged in the middle of an aisle, book in one hand, as she nibbled at her crescent-shaped nails on the other. She got that habit from her dad. From me, her nocturnal nature.
I knew that the next morning when I got home from yet another night shift, I would open her bedroom door to find a gap on her bookshelf and an open book on her bed sheets. Whispering good morning, I’d turn off the light she’d fallen asleep to. She wouldn’t stir from her first-light slumber.
Every morning of those stretched-out summers, I’d pull into our asphalt driveway after work and sit and smile as I thought of our library days. And I still did even when the new term had started and I’d be greeted by a rushed goodbye and a parent’s letter to sign. Even when funding to the local library was cut; when weekends became a time for milkshakes with her best friends; and when her storybooks were replaced by dictionaries in foreign languages and academic journals with exaggerated titles. Her room, now the guest room; on her bookshelf, the ones that were almost chosen. Sometimes I check they are still where she left them and test their weight in my hands.