By Marie Lebert, 21 December 2016.
“Moon” is a collection of six timeless short stories, which are related, in one way or another, to the book. Here is the second short story, translated from French by Jane Golding.
Nicolas’ mother told another story. This one was about the obsessive fear of drawers falling out, a nightmare that would make any librarian worthy of the name wake up with a start.
With the onset of computerisation, library card index files were on their way to becoming obsolete, but luckily, the librarians had kept them. In general, librarians tend to keep things; it’s part of their job. What would you say about a librarian who was always having massive clear outs, or who incongruously threw away anything that was cluttering up the shelves? You would advise him to retrain as a council refuse collector or, without being too specific, to quite simply change careers.
The librarians had made sure that they kept their paper catalogue for a while although their catalogue was now computerised – paper catalogue meaning, of course, a catalogue on index cards. Fortunately, the drawers of index cards were equipped with a rod to stop eight hundred or a thousand cards falling out during a false move, which is not to suggest for a moment that the librarians were in the habit of reeling around unsteadily or hitting the bottle. Alcohol abuse is not compatible with a profession that requires rigour and dexterity.
It goes without saying that a librarian, who is by nature a conscientious person, would not usually drop the drawer of a card index file by accident. Contrary to popular gossip, this very rarely occurs, because of the thankless task that invariably follows. In fact, a so-called normal card index file contains around eight hundred cards, sometimes many more. Usually, the drawers are as overcrowded as the Paris metro in rush hour, and inserting a new card is a real achievement. Luckily, with computerisation, all this messing around is on its way out.
If the librarian who had dropped a drawer full of cards worked very fast, it would take him at least one whole day to reinsert them, and that’s if he worked through the lunch hour and if the drawer wasn’t particularly overcrowded. It was safer to allow two whole days to insert the cards so the librarian didn’t become too exhausted, because then he might have been tempted to reclassify it all any old way or chuck half the cards in the dustbin.
First case study – and this doesn’t happen very often, although it did happen in a library by the seaside a long time ago. A mouse runs between your legs, or even a rat, or worse still a sewer rat, although you thought you had got rid of these little creatures for good, thanks to an efficiently conducted rat extermination campaign using different coloured traps.
You want to insert your new index cards. You have already taken the rod out. A sewer rat goes past, grey, unpleasant, disgusting, with his little eyes sunk deep in their sockets. You are stunned by the idea that rats are still visiting your library even though, in theory, they are banned, despite the fact that you are an animal lover, although you prefer cats and dogs.
Despite your great self-control, you fly off the handle and yell a particularly rude insult at the sewer rat, which will not be repeated here, and crash! It will take you one or two days’ work to reclassify your index cards, and it’s not as if you have nothing else to do; far from it, and as you are conscientious, you don’t want to throw your heap of cards in the dustbin. You had a hard time typing your cards out, and so you might as well keep them until computerisation sets you free from all these bits of white, beige or grey card.
Second case study – and this happens more often. You slip on a banana skin that a child has pushed under your foot, because last Saturday you had explained to the child that you must never tear the books, just read them, or at least look at the pictures if you are not old enough to read.
The spiteful child heard his mummy and daddy laughing about a colleague who had broken his leg when he slipped on a banana skin that had been left in the middle of the road. He asked his mummy for a banana for tea, not so much for the banana but for the skin, which was destined for the librarian who had uttered the unfortunate words last Saturday.
When all is said and done, the librarian did not break his leg, because people in this profession are supple people who know how to fall on their feet, but he dropped the index file. Seeing his unhappy expression, the child realised that his trick hadn’t failed completely. As he was a good boy, he would help the librarian pick up the cards that were scattered over the carpet like autumn leaves on the lawn, but without the colour or the poetry, and above all with one important difference. Dead leaves don’t have to be reclassified and reinserted into the tree, but cards must be reclassified and reinserted into the card index file.
Another case study. The librarian trips on the Moroccan mat, which is rucked up under the index file, and falls flat on his face, despite the adhesive strips fixed underneath the mat. The same scenario as before. The cards fall to the ground like dead leaves in autumn, except that cards fall heavily, all at once, whereas autumn leaves fall to the ground one after another in a graceful dance.
Yet another case study. The librarian hears the landline telephone ringing stridently and says to himself, “Bother, now who’s calling me?” It could be a reader with overdue books, journals or CD-ROMs, a user who wants to ask about the library’s opening hours even though he or she could quite easily look in the newspaper -print or digital- and put on glasses or use a magnifying glass if he or she has poor eyesight, or an inquisitive person who wants some cranky information and can’t be bothered to consult his Webster’s Dictionary or the Encyclopaedia Britannica or Wikipedia, depending on his budget.
The rod has already been removed, flop, the cards are on the ground and moreover, the person on the line wonders why he is not being politely informed. Meanwhile, during his laborious explanations, the poor librarian is already thinking about the horrendous chore that is waiting for him in addition to his usual work.
Another case. Extreme tiredness. The librarian hasn’t eaten or drunk anything since seven o’clock this morning. That happens more often than you might think. No reader had thought of taking him a sandwich, let alone a cup of tea, or even a teabag in a plastic cup. He wouldn’t have minded if there was no cup and saucer. So, at the wrong moment, the librarian suddenly feels weak. He is standing up, he wants to go and sit down, the card index file is in his hands but the rod has already been taken out, and crash! Everything is suddenly on the ground. Depending on his temperament, the librarian will either hurry off to lunch or begin to pick up the index cards.
In the past, to make it even more difficult, the rods were screwed to the bottom of the card index files, and even an observant reader could not see the ends on the outside. With this model, only the librarians knew how to take out and put back the rods, which were invisible to the readers. That was one of their professional secrets. Thirty years later, however, any reader who was on the ball could borrow a rod for whatever reason and use it to scratch himself on the back or inside his ear, or even to scratch an inaccessible part of the body that was covered in plaster as the result of a fall.
During the course of his career, Nicolas had even seen zealous readers picking up litter from the floor of the library with them, copying the road sweepers, who used spikes to use to pick up dead leaves in parks.
So these were Nicolas’ daydreams as he remembered his mother’s story, while breathing in the cool early morning air, on his way to an unknown destination.