Read The Book Stops Here: A Mobile Library Mystery Online

Authors: Ian Sansom

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery fiction, #Suspense, #Mystery, #Mystery & Detective, #Mystery & Detective - General, #Humorous fiction, #Detective, #Fiction - Mystery, #Fiction - General, #Librarians, #English Mystery & Suspense Fiction, #Jewish, #Northern Ireland

The Book Stops Here: A Mobile Library Mystery (7 page)

BOOK: The Book Stops Here: A Mobile Library Mystery
6.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

'Er. Yes. Probably.'

'And some of us have work to do,' said George.

'Yes, quite,' said Israel.

George was already walking away, her back turned from him.

'Good-bye then,' called Israel.

She didn't turn to wave or answer.

Israel walked bitterly back to the chicken coop. He couldn't wait to get away from here, to England, to Gloria, to good coffee, and to home.

hey very nearly missed the ferry.

Brownie dropped Israel off at Ted's little bungalow out on the main coast road, just by the sign saying
, and along past the little new-build Café Bistro, which had never been occupied or let, and which was now proclaiming on a large, ugly estate agent's hoarding its extremely unlikely 'Potential as a Gift Shop'.

Ted's bungalow was sheltered at the foot of a sheer white limestone cliff, its extraordinary vast clear views of the sea—to the left, far out to Rathlin Island and then across to the Mull of Kintyre—blotted out by the perpetual blur of traffic. It could and should have been the perfect little spot, with a bounteous vista, vast and uninterrupted. Instead it was dark and cold, with long, depressing, interrupting views of cars, white vans and lorries; paradise obscured, like Moses allowed a glimpse of the Promised Land, and then cut off by the A2 coast road.

Parked proudly out on the bungalow's weed and gravel forecourt, wedged tightly between bins and Ted's neighbours'—the McGaws—little fenced-off area for sheep, and shadowed by the cliff above, yet still somehow shimmering in the late afternoon light, was the mobile library. She looked different.

Ted had absolutely no intention of losing the bet with Israel and had undertaken some essential care and maintenance tasks: he had scraped and cleaned and waxed the van, polishing her and buffing her until her red and cream livery was all ice cream and municipal bright once again, the words 'Mobile Library' and 'The Book Stops Here' picked out gorgeously in a honey gold and crisp forbidding black. The chrome looked chromey, and the headlights clear, and all the dirt had been washed from the windows. The van had had a makeover. She looked—and Israel actually thought this for a moment, a weird J. G. Ballard moment—she looked, he thought, the mobile library, she looked
. She looked absolutely fantastic. She looked flushed, and noble and come-hitherish. She looked good enough to eat. She looked—and again, this is what he thought, he couldn't help it—she looked like Marilyn Monroe.

Israel knew in that instant of recognition, in that perverse, momentary gaze upon the van's pouting, polished, peach-like beauty, that she would win the category for Concours D'Elégance at the Mobile Meet, and that all was lost. He knew that Tumdrum would never get a new mobile library, and that Ted would triumph and would demand his pound of flesh, and that he, Israel, would have to beg for a loan to pay off the bet, would have to beg from Mr Mawhinney, probably, the manager of the Ulster Bank on Main Street in Tumdrum, who borrowed to his limit from the library every week, biographies, mostly, and military history, so perhaps Israel could borrow to his limit from the bank in return? 'I need the money,' he would have to explain, 'because Marilyn Monroe melted the hearts of the mobile library judges at the annual Mobile Meet.' And Mr Mawhinney would say, 'What?' and Israel Armstrong would be ruined and ridiculed by beauty, by this great curvaceous ambulant thing. He'd be condemned to life with Ted on the mobile library forever. He'd be ruined. He'd lose the duffle coat off his back, and the brogues from his feet, his corduroy trousers—everything.

But, then, on closer inspection, it seemed that Israel's dignity and his money were perhaps safe; on closer inspection you could still see the many little rust spots that Ted's primping couldn't cover, and the scuffs and the scrapes and the scratches on the chrome, the little dints on the windscreen, the horrible filthy dirt-brown exhaust. The van was not a movie star; Marilyn was a person. The van was real. Some of the paintwork looked as though it might have been touched up using ordinary household emulsion. And the hand that had painted 'The Book Stops Here' could perhaps have been steadier. Even Ted couldn't work miracles in just a few days. A makeover could not make new.

Buoyed, confused, excited and relieved, Israel rapped loudly and rang at Ted's door.

He was greeted first from inside with the sound of irritable growling from Muhammad, Ted's little Jack Russell terrier, and then with irritable shushings and hushings as Ted quieted the dog and opened up the door with a scowl. Or, at least, not literally with a scowl. Ted opened the door literally with his hand, obviously,
scowling, but when Ted scowled it was overwhelming; whatever it was Ted did while scowling became an act of scowl; the scowl became constitutive. He scowled often when they were out on the van, and in meetings with Linda Wei, and often unexpectedly and for no good reason at all in mid-conversation. Ted's mouth would be saying one thing—'How can I help you, madam?' or 'Yes, we can get that on inter-library loan'—but his scowl at the same time would be clearly saying something entirely different, something like 'Ach,' usually, or 'Away on,' or 'Go fuck yourself, ye wee runt, ye.' This last was the scowl now facing Israel. He'd been to Ted's bungalow only once before, and Ted clearly wished that Israel weren't here now. Ted did not believe in franertising—his word—with work colleagues. Franertising was extremely frowned—scowled—upon. Ted held the door open only a crack and Israel could just about see the room behind him, with its drab sofa and the yelping dog.

'Ted,' said Israel.

'That's correct,' said Ted. 'Quiet, Muhammad!'

'Are you ready?'


'Oh. You were supposed to be ready.'

'Aye,' said Ted.

'Well, look, hurry up, we need to go, the ferry's at six.'


'We've not got much time. I can wait outside if you'd rather. But we do need to hurry.'

'Hurry is as hurry does.'


'It's just a—'

'Saying, right, fine. Whatever. We need to get going here. Do you want me to load your bags in the van? You're all packed?'


'No, you don't want me to load your bags, or no, you're not packed?'

'I'm not packed.'

'What do you mean you're not packed? We've got only a couple of hours before the ship sails.'

'I'm not coming.'


'I'm not coming.'

'What do you mean, you're not coming? Of course you're coming.'

'I'm not. Coming.'

'All right, yeah, stop muckin' about now, Ted. We've got to go.'

'I'm not coming.'

'But we've a bet on.'

'I've changed my mind.'

'You said you couldn't change your mind once you'd made a bet.'

'I've changed my mind.'

Well, no.

On this occasion Israel could not afford to have Ted change his mind. He had already had just about enough of Northern Irish intransigence and stubbornness and self-righteous inconsistency for the past eight months, and now he was pumped and ready to go, and Ted was holding him back.

So, no. No, no, no.

'No,' he said, using his considerable weight to push against the door. 'No. That's it. I'm not having this, Ted.'

Israel stood staring up at Ted's scowl, wedged between the door and some old green cans containing peat.

'You've mucked me about with this enough already,' he said. 'I'm getting on that boat to England this evening whether you like it or not.'

He was trying to squeeze into the bungalow. Muhammad was going crazy. Israel was a bona fide intruder.

'Aye, right, you go on ahead, son,' said Ted, pushing Israel back out the door, with little effort. 'Because I'm not going. You.' Shove. 'Can.' Shove. 'Go.' Shove. 'Yerself.'

Israel was back out on the doorstep.

'I can't go myself, Ted,' said Israel, furious, pushing back against the door with his shoulder.

'Don't you lean against my flippin' door!' said Ted. 'You'll scratch the paintwork!'

Muhammad was barking himself demented behind Ted's legs.

'Ted. I need you to come with me,' said Israel, sighing, giving up on force and trying calm, quiet negotiation instead.


'Because. I can't drive the van all that way, without some…It needs two of us. We're like…Butch Cassidy and the—'

'Ach, Israel, wise up.'

'Wise up' was probably Ted's second favourite phrase, after 'Ach', though 'Catch yerself on', 'Ye eejit', and 'What are ye, stupit?' were also extremely popular.

'No, you wise up, Ted, for a change,' said Israel, the words, coming from his own lips, making him feel rather strange, as though suddenly inhabited by another nation and language, an alien within him bursting from his chest. 'We owe this to the people of Tumdrum, to—'

'Ach, Israel, ye want to have to listen to yerself. You're an absolute sickener, d'ye know that? You're as bad as the rest of them.'

'What do you mean, the rest of them?'

'The whole library committee. Ye're a bunch of hypocrites. You've no interest in this mobile library conference thing at all.'

'The Mobile Meet?'


'Well, actually, as it happens, I am very—'

'You just want an excuse to get over to England.'

'Well, obviously, that too.'

'That's all ye're interested in.'

'No, it's not.'

'Aye, it is.'



'All right, fine,' said Israel, 'if it makes you feel better, Ted. You're right. I don't care at all about the Mobile Meet. I don't care about the new mobile library, or the old mobile library for that matter. I just want to go home. Which means we have to leave in a minute and get on the ferry and go.'

'Well, at least ye're being honest now.'

'Good. And so while we're about it, why don't you be honest?'


'If it's honesty time, how about you being honest for a change?'

'What in God's name are ye talkin' about now?'

'I think you're scared of going over to England,' said Israel.

'Of course I'm not scared,' said Ted.

'I think you are scared.'

'Of what?'

'Going over to England. The big wide world out there.'

'I've seen more of the big wide world than ye'll ever see, ye runt.'

'Well, then, what's stopping you?'

'Nothing. Just…'


Ted was silent and gazed down at the floor. Muhammad, too, went quiet.

In all his time working on the mobile library with big Ted Carson, Israel had never known him to drop his gaze. Ted was the kind of person who looked at a problem straight in the eye and waited for it to back down. And if it didn't back down, he punched its lights out.

Israel saw his chance to seize the initiative.

'All right, Ted, listen. We are going. Because, Ted, look. Look at the van, Ted. Ted!' Ted looked up. 'Look. Just look at the van!'

Ted looked across at the clean-scrubbed van.

'I don't want to make you big-headed here, but honestly, you've done an incredible job. It's possible—and I realise I'm talking myself out of a thousand pounds here—it's possible that you might win the Concours D'Elégance. You owe it to yourself, Ted.' Israel was into his stride now. 'Not just that. You owe it to the
, Ted. Look at her. She could sit here, loved by you, or you could share her with others, show other people what this little country—'

'Province,' corrected Ted.

'—province is capable of. Do you know what I call her?' said Israel.

'What?' said Ted.

'Marilyn,' said Israel.

'Marilyn?' said Ted.

'Like Marilyn Monroe.'

'My favourite film actress,' said Ted, nodding his head.

'Really?' said Israel. 'There you are then. Let's get Marilyn out on the road and show people what we're made of, shall we?'

Ted took a deep sigh and looked slowly from the van to Israel, and back again from Israel to the van, and out across the obscured vista to the sea, and then he opened the door a crack wider.

'Ach, ye wee bastard. All right. I'll grab me duncher, and the dog. You're going to regret taking on this bet,' he said.

'We'll see,' said Israel, and then, pushing his luck a little too far, 'but you definitely can't bring the dog.'

'I'm bringing the dog.' Ted's face hardened.

'Fine!' said Israel. He didn't like dogs. 'Bring the dog! Fine. But let's just go, can we? We've not got much time.'

'And I need me duncher and some clothes.'

'Your whatter?'

'Me cap, me cap. I'm not going away over to the mainland without me cap.'

And so eventually, somehow, by driving at frighteningly high speed along the winding coast road that Israel had come to love and to loathe, Ted and Israel and Muhammad the dog boarded the Liverpool ferry, and now they stood at the bow of the ship, Ted in his duncher, Israel in his duffle coat, Muhammad in the mobile library stowed safely down below.

Israel was thinking of warm beer, and muffins, and Wensleydale cheese, and Wallace and Gromit, and the music of Elgar, and the Clash, and the Beatles, and Jarvis Cocker, and the white cliffs of Dover, and Big Ben, and the West End, and Stonehenge, and Alton Towers, and the Last Night of the Proms, and Glastonbury, and William Hogarth, and William Blake, and Just William, and Winston Churchill, and the North Circular Road, and Grodzinski's for coffee, and rubbish, and potholes, and a slice of Stilton and a pickled onion and George Orwell. And Gloria, of course. He was almost home to Gloria. G-L-O-R-I-A.

Oh God. He couldn't wait.

Muhammad, down below, was thinking of bones, and scraps and bouncing balls.

And Ted's thoughts went unrecorded.

And Israel felt the chill wind and the spray on his face and waved good-bye to Northern Ireland. He turned to Ted.

'Goodie!' he said.

'Ach, Jesus,' said Ted.

srael vomited continually and consistently for most of the journey, although it was dry vomiting after a while, obviously; retching, voiding, spewing, ructating; stomach turned up and turned overboard; and down, and up, and down again, struck low and lower and down yet again by the ship's gentle toss and heave; beaten down and down in the ship's filthy toilets, down on his knees in other men's yellow filth, clinging to the toilet bowl, face up against white plastic, praying to God for mercy and forgiveness.

BOOK: The Book Stops Here: A Mobile Library Mystery
6.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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