The Burning Library

When an old woman dies, it’s like a library has burnt down.

I think of that a lot as I watch the old woman lose her mind. It is ironic maybe that I’m watching her deterioration from behind the loans counter at the library she has visited every day for forty years.

It started slowly. Forgetting where certain shelves where. Mixing up westerns and fantasy so when she went looking for a book with a cowboy on the cover, she found a dragon instead.

Then she began forgetting to return books. For a few days, then a week, then twelve weeks. At first, I would politely remind her of her fines, and then, when I saw what was happening I started paying them off myself.

As it became clear what was happening, the old woman would fall into moods. Pungent with anger and fear, she would lash out at those seeking to help her. Her brain dull, but her words sharp as broken glass.

Eventually, a sort of calm fell over her. The doctors had her on antidepressants which removed the fear but also everything else, until the old woman was just shuffling into the library each morning to sit in her favourite chair and read a book she had already read. The letters that had once been so familiar, now becoming treacherous and cruel as they evaded understanding.

I watched her today. She sat in the chair, reading or at least looking at the book. There was so much in that head and every day we lost a little more. Memories of first loves, a recipe for Yorkshire pudding, funny stories, sad stories, any stories. The fire that consumed the library wasn’t picky. It didn’t hesitant or leave anything untouched. It burnt everything and left nothing for the survivors to find.

She closed her book and walked to the counter.

‘Has my reserve come in?’ She asked. She hadn’t put a reserve on for eight months.

‘Not today,’ I said after making a full show of looking it up on the computer.

She nodded, ‘Maybe tomorrow.’

‘Maybe,’ I said.

‘Okay. See you then,’ she leant forward to read my nametag. ‘Alex.’

‘Yeah, seeya then,’ She walked away. ‘Mum.’