Authors: Barry Maitland
He watched her as she approached, trying to hide his eagerness, and wondered if she would glance at him and offer one of her knowing little smiles. They were at least at that stage, although in his imagination they were a good deal further. Stephen would be irate to learn that he had certainly spent more time studying her than the Borgias’ gardens. He knew her borrowing record, her home address, her working timetable, her tastes in soft drinks and sandwiches. He could recall exactly the intonations of her voice when she was puzzled, amused, cajoling the librarians who helped her track down the things she needed. And he had many photographs of her, working here in the library, sitting outside in St James’s Square beneath William III on his prancing horse, and on the bus. And all this he had acquired in secret, without arousing the least suspicion.
Marion paused beside her table, splaying her fingers on its surface for support. There was a faint sheen of perspiration on her forehead, which was creased by a frown, as if she were trying to make sense of something. She grimaced suddenly,
raising a hand abruptly to her mouth and reaching with the other for her chair. But before she could grasp it she staggered, and her hand knocked the vase of flowers to the floor. She doubled over with a moan and sank to her knees.
‘Oh!’ Her cry was cut off as she was abruptly sick, her body convulsing violently, sending the chair tumbling onto its back.
Consternation spread out in ripples across the Reading Room, people rising to their feet, craning to see what had happened. But Nigel remained where he was, eyes bright, phone in hand, fastidiously recording every detail. She was being sick again, poor thing, writhing in agony as she vomited over the red carpet.
One of the librarians was running forward. ‘What is it?’ she demanded. ‘What’s wrong?’
A man who had been seated at her table said, ‘She … she’s having some sort of attack,’ shrinking back with a look of horrified pity on his face. Last to respond, the two old codgers in the armchairs in front of the fireplace had belatedly risen to their feet. Everyone’s attention was focused on the epicentre of the drama, unaware of Nigel taking surreptitious pictures of Marion thrashing about helplessly on the floor, and of the shock on people’s faces as they witnessed this awful scene, all of them struck by the same terrible realisation that such a thing, whatever it was, could happen to anyone, at any time, even
in this sanctuary.
‘Is there a doctor here?’ the librarian cried.
Actually there were six in the room, but none of them of the medical kind, and they were quite unable to help.
‘Are you calling an ambulance?’ she demanded, and Nigel froze, realising suddenly that she was staring straight at him.
‘Yes, absolutely!’ He dialled triple nine, feeling himself the
focus of attention now as people gratefully averted their eyes from Marion. He spoke fast and clearly to the operator, feeling he was doing it rather well, and when they wanted to know his name he gave it with a little thrill of excitement—he would be on the official record.
‘Airways,’ the librarian said. ‘We have to make sure she doesn’t choke.’ But that was easier said than done, for Marion’s body was racked by convulsive spasms. It was some minutes before they subsided enough for the librarian to bravely stick her fingers into the young woman’s mouth to make sure she hadn’t swallowed her tongue. Kneeling in the mess, she cradled Marion’s head on her lap and stroked her hair soothingly, the wild flowers scattered on the carpet all around. Nigel got some good shots of that.
Someone was gathering up the contents of Marion’s bag, which had spilled over the floor. Nigel stooped to help. He picked up a hairbrush, with strands of her red hair coiled around its bristles, and reluctantly put it back into the bag. But he palmed the computer memory stick lying beside it, slipping it into his pocket.