We lost a borrower at work this week.
We lost a lot of things this week in my opinion, but that's a separate blog post.
Her name was Mary. She'd been using the mobile library since, well, since long before I started working there. She lived a short walk from where we stop and every other Tuesday night (initially it was every week but it became fortnightly a few years ago) she'd amble along with her gym bag full of books to come and see us. I loved the image of this woman in her eighties with her red and grey gym bag, pootling along the road. The determination she had for books was marvellous.
She'd come onto the van and drop the bag off for us to sort it while she went into the shop to buy a paper and get us some chocolate. The chocolate was non negotiable. Two bars each, whatever we wanted. I tried saying no a few times, but she'd just buy four bars for the other person, so I'd end up taking them anyway.
She was a Mills & Boon reader. 'Light tripe', as she once described them to me, and she read a lot. Historical mainly, but she'd have... Actually, no. Historical Mills and Boon was quite literally her bag. Getting enough books to fill it every week/fortnight was a challenge that's fallen to everyone in the office at one time or another. She was the kind of borrower who, because she never took it for granted that there would be books waiting for her, we always tried to make sure there were books waiting for her.
She was also 'one of us'. When we found out we were up for closure, our service put forward as a potential cut for the following year's budget, she wasn't happy. And so she kicked up a fuss. This woman in her eighties, who still volunteered for a charity with a children's social service type remit up until the day she died, went to bat on our behalf. She spoke to councillors and sent letters in to local newspapers. She made phone calls. She cared.
Our service is safe now, for the time being at least. Whether that's because of what Mary did or not we'll never know. In one of those weird quirks of fate I actually found out we were safe on the same Tuesday two colleagues of mine were being told that Mary had passed away. Sometimes, you couldn't write life.
It's hard to describe how it feels when a borrower dies. It's both personal and distant. Like a regular bereavement, and a random one at the same time. An old school friend that you haven't seen for twenty years dying from an illness that you didn't even know they had. Like normal grief, at first you think about it a lot, but pretty quickly it has to fade. After all, you only see these people once a week at most.
Then you find yourself going to put a book to one side for them, before realising they won't ever read it. Or you drive to their stop making conversational plans before realising there will be no conversation. Or you go through the request tray to find a request card and come across one they'd put in a few weeks ago for a book they'll now never get. Constant, though infrequent, reminders.
A few years ago we used to have a woman called Mrs Edgington come on the van at a stop called Manor Road. We'd park up, then I'd go and walk to meet her so I could carry her bags. She'd take my arm and we'd talk about her family or, more often than not, the latest Steven Segal film. He was her favourite actor and she'd watch his films whenever she could. One week when I went to meet her she wasn't there. A friend of hers came on to return her books and told us that she'd had a fall and died.
About a week later I was in the office when the phone rang. When I answered it with the words 'Tom speaking' the lady on the other end said 'Ah, Tom, just the man I'm looking for'. Turns out it was Mrs Edgington's neighbour on the line and she wanted to call and tell me that Mrs Edgington always looked forward to our chats while we walked to the van, that she loved our Steven Segal discussions (I told her I preferred Jean Claude Van Damme) and used to say 'Tom said this' or 'Tom said that' all the time whenever she talked about the library. What a wonderful call for a neighbour to make.
I tear up whenever I think of that. It's part of why I love this job, this vocation, so much. Books and stories bringing people together. At a time when society seems to be losing touch with what's important, when things many of us have taken for granted for years are being eroded by political entities straight out of the pages of a horror story, it feels prudent to acknowledge that togetherness.
Mary didn't read horror. Neither did Mrs Edgington for that matter, they both liked their Mills & Boon. And they also both liked people. Most people who read do. You can't help but feel a bond with others when you spend so much time viewing a world through other people's eyes. Whether being dictated to via a third person narrator, or privy to the inner thoughts of a protagonist, books socialise you.
They offer you the experiences of other people. They help to shape your beliefs and ideals. They encourage you to stand up for what you think is right, to make phone calls and write letters when you feel it is merited. They help to make you the kind of person who buys chocolate for the staff on the library van you go to every other week.
ThankBookFor Mary. She was one of us.