I wrote this for the anthology Unchained. The book was produced by Bristol Women Writers to celebrate the 400th birthday of Bristol's first 'chained' library. I'm very proud of it, and am also grateful for the following online reviews:
'My favourite was the current tale of homeless using the library as refuge. This was because the actions and dialogue are exceptionally convincing and sentimentality or facile 'rescue' were avoided'. Rosalind Minnett, Amazon review.
'Sally Hare’s thoughtfully named ‘Those Who Would Otherwise be Cold’ dropped me deep into protagonist Andrew’s world with an authenticity that left me feeling I would recognise him if we passed on the street, and its ending made me want to cheer for him, and undoubtedly be hushed by a stern librarian'. Judy Darley, Skylightrain.
Those who would otherwise be cold
Andrew started off late that day. Long-simmering tension between two of the other tenants had finally boiled over into a slanging match, and everything had been out of whack since. By the time he arrived at Bristol Central Library, his spot on the round table under the stained-glass window had been taken, as had the Historical World he had been halfway through reading. It was always annoying when members of the public didn’t understand the rules of sheltering in the library. The hostel was not the sort that closed during the day, but, like his daily shower and clean shirt ritual, Andrew had always felt that getting out for a regular few hours gave him a bit of structure, kept him part of the world. Also, the heating didn’t work very well in the TV room. Sitting here got boring, of course, usually around eleven in the morning, and again at three, but there were worse ways to pass the time, worse places not to think about a drink.
Scanning the long, tiered Reading Room, he discovered his magazine in the hands of a newcomer. She was sitting a third of the way along one of the wooden study benches, a crammed hessian shopper squashed in front of her wellingtons, knuckly fingers turning the familiar pages. It was difficult to guess her age; her clothes were a charity shop jumble, she wore no makeup, and her sandy hair had been pulled into a trend-defying scrunchie at the back. He supposed she could be anywhere between mid-twenties and knocking on forty.
Andrew took a seat as near to the radiator as he could and unpacked: sneaky KitKat and the usual packet of cheese sandwiches hidden under his A4 notebook, plus illusion-completing pen. All the while he squinted at the magazine, trying to guess how many pages remained unread. The woman kept flicking backwards and forwards so, like her age, it was impossible to calculate. Returning his attention to his own section of table, Andrew inadvertently caught the eye of the librarian. This was something he tried not to do. She returned his stifled look of alarm with one of benign threat. He looked away, busying himself with not very much.
Most of the other regulars were settled now. He didn’t know any of their names, which was part of the attraction of coming to the library rather than, say, the museum or bus station, where small talk would inevitably become an issue sooner or later. There was the man who smelled of cigarettes, the woman who smelled of something worse, and the youngish lad in the Big Issue tabard who looked perpetually surprised to be there. No sign of the mumsy-looking blonde woman, but she rarely appeared on a Monday. He scratched his beard, which seemed to be trying to suck all the hair from his head these days, and leaned forward on the desk to stop his belt from pulling.
His fingers began to tingle pleasantly as the central heating worked its way into his joints. Shooting a last jealous glance at his magazine, Andrew wandered through the dark wooden alcoves that surrounded the Reading Room and picked a book at random from the ceiling-high bank of shelves. It was historical, which was good, but something to do with Victorian Parliament, which wasn’t exactly his cup of tea. He was more of a swords and sandals man. Still, the combined smells of old paper, dust and bulk-bought furniture polish began to work their usual spell on his mood, and the morning’s mishaps faded. It was almost eleven before he knew it.
The comforting hush, the warmth, and the literature began to lull him; the words swam on the pages and Andrew felt his head begin to nod. He shook it and rubbed his face. The woman with his magazine laughed, too loudly, drawing attention, so he bowed diligently over the Nuisance Removal Acts, hoping the librarian would not guess who the snort had been aimed at, or notice his doubtless red-rimmed eyes.
At half past eleven Andrew swapped his book for one on Norse mythology, which was much more to his taste, and slid his hand under the notebook to have a crafty nibble of his KitKat. He no longer minded that the woman still had his magazine. She seemed far more engrossed in the articles than he had been the day before, rocking backwards and forwards, following the words with fingers and lips. A studenty-looking couple were obviously finding this amusing; Andrew coughed just loud enough to ensure his glare was registered before returning to his own reading matter.
Now he had noticed her behaviour, however, it was difficult to un-notice it. He angled his chair a little, snapping his biscuit a centimetre at a time and sucking each piece until it could be swallowed silently. There was something fascinating in her fascination, he decided, something refreshing about a little liveliness in such a weary atmosphere. What he had initially assumed to be her lips following the text, he soon realised, was not quite true. She was repeating snippets to herself, only moving on when the next fact grabbed her. ‘Forty-six per cent’ became ‘an angry mob’ became ‘Tooting Bec Lido’, and so on. It was almost hypnotic, and Andrew realised that he had now become the one staring. He forced his attention back to Odin and chums, and left at four, as usual, to take the twenty minute walk back to St Paul’s.
The atmosphere in the hostel had lifted a little on his return as the beefier (and stroppier) participant of the morning’s spat had decided to move out, to the relief of everyone else. Andrew spent the evening not thinking about Special Brew in front of the TV, but the woman in the library kept invading his consciousness. Whispered refrains layered themselves under the staccato sarcasm of reality show commentaries, wove their way through the understated awe of natural history programmes, as he half-dozed, half-read The Evening Post.
He was late again the next day, for no other reason than he was. The woman was there already, same spot, same magazine, same shopper by her feet. Although his seat in the window was free, he found himself returning to the position he had occupied the day before, enjoying the rhythm of her murmuring floating through the motes: ‘democratic constitution’; ‘brilliant pamphleteers’; ‘unexpected uprising’.
By the eleven o’clock slump he had just about finished his book, and counteracted the drowsiness by wandering in and out of the gloomy cubby holes for a while, aware of how her voice sounded from the far corner of the room, the back of an alcove, the nook behind the stairs. Finally picking a biography of George Melly for a change, he decided to sit three seats nearer to her, moving his things along the desk as quietly as he could. He dared a smile, hoping for a glint of recognition, camaraderie even. But she angled her body away from him sharply as if he was trying to cheat at an exam. Andrew was left to sit with overly ebullient George for the rest of the day, wincing at the jazzman’s satsuma-coloured tie, ultramarine hat, and other fashion eyesores. If it had not been for her continued mumbling he would have gone back to the hostel early, but instead he sat, not thinking about Tennent’s Super, and prickling with embarrassment.
On Wednesday, after a listless night of unfocussed angst and half-watched panel shows on Dave, a foggy-eyed Andrew marched straight past the receptionist and turned left, away from the earnest snoozery of the Reading Room. The Learning Centre was a bright, newish extension hiding at the end of the corridor, round what looked like a dead end. He rarely came here beyond browsing for a magazine now and then; after the dusty quiet, the laptops, workstations and abundance of public all came as a bit of a shock. He took a motoring monthly at random from the rack and settled himself in one of the low airport-style benches, feeling exposed without a desk, but resolved to wait a few days before returning to his usual spot.
It was difficult to concentrate. He found himself not thinking of Gold Label at fairly regular intervals as the clock turned with increasing sluggishness. It was difficult to snaffle any snacks out of his bag without being seen, and more people were giving him looks than they ever did round the corner. The old doubts began to surface again. How ridiculous it was, sitting here day after day when he could be out – in the cold – achieving something. Quite what he might achieve Andrew always found difficult to fathom, but today he wondered whether it would come to him if he just meandered round for long enough. He began to shuffle his belongings back into the carrier bag, barely aware of the person who came to sit next to him until the familiar undertone began.
‘A brief but bloody battle fought on bleak moorland.’
Andrew resettled himself quickly, trying to make his packing-up look like a bit of general tidying. He tried another smile, enjoying the comforting aroma of inexpensive shower products she gave off this close, but the woman ignored him, studying the magazine which slid awkwardly on her lap. Andrew pretended to be absorbed by the motoring glossy, flicking as quickly as he could past pictures of Jeremy Clarkson and scowling at the inevitable gawpers. Hours passed, the clock’s indifference coming close to outright cheek as his leg went to sleep and his bladder swelled.
At two o’clock she abruptly stood and swapped Historical World for Wildlife Extra from some box files stacked along the top of a bookcase. Though Andrew had not read a word of his petrolhead magazine, he waited a full ten minutes before recovering his long-lost reading matter. He doubted he would read a word of these articles either, but although the woman’s attention to the resurgence of endangered Patagonian deer appeared steady, there seemed almost a chuckle at the heart of her ‘synergistic conservation actions’.
By three, he felt in danger of rupturing something important, but managed to hold it in for another half an hour before the inevitable dash for the Gents. That she had left by the time he got back did not come as much of a surprise.
He had group the next day, same as every Thursday, so Andrew didn’t arrive at the library until gone eleven. He wondered where he would find her, if she was there at all, but her presence became apparent as he got to the top of the stairs. The woman was back in her usual space, with the nature magazine, repeating phrases noisily and taking deep wobbly breaths as she rocked. People were nudging, sitting further away from her than usual, so Andrew grunted loudly, grabbed the nearest book, and sat on the opposite side of the desk, one space along.
Geoff Boycott: A Cricketing Hero.
Oh, bollocks. It was going to be a long day. He arranged his bits and bobs, acutely aware of the tremble in her voice, its slow, laborious return to normal. He thought about writing an apologetic note but that seemed, perversely, too weird, so he wondered instead if a smile was in order. He raised his head just as she lowered hers.
There was something different about her from this angle. The scrunchie had gone, and her hair was instead swept backwards into some rolling curl thing down the back of her head. Her clothes looked different too: still mismatched (today a pink cardigan affair over a green flowery blouse), but they looked crisper somehow. A silver heart-shaped pendant dangled freely in front of her top button, and she smelled like the bubbly stuff his sister used to get given for Christmas by Aunt Janice. Fruity.
It was too confusing, so Andrew buried himself in biographical swagger. Every few minutes the muttering would stop and he would have the impression of being stared at, but by the time he looked up she was studying her magazine again.
‘Shark attacks on humans are extremely rare, but should it ever happen, you need to know what to do.’
That’s what it sounded like, anyway. He began to wonder what you should do. Swim fast? Play dead? Punch it on the nose? The surprised-looking Big Issue lad had a resonant fit of the hiccups, and everything got oddly syncopated. Andrew tapped his fingers on the desk along with the rhythm. The woman looked up, despite herself, then looked down again far more quickly. Andrew hoped she had not taken his reaction the wrong way.
She looked … sort of beautiful. And also not. Andrew had become accustomed to her unkempt cleanliness, and had not expected to see the woman looking so, well, done-up. Her complexion was brushed a pale cream, her eyes swept with smoky shadow. Cheeks and lips glowed softly.
Andrew would not in any way have considered himself an expert on feminine wiles but the idea of her applying all this stuff so – expertly – did not seem likely to him. She was sitting in silence, rocking, now, so he resumed his finger tattoo to try and reassure her, watching the strip of cheek visible to him mottle rosily beneath its dusting of powder.
She’s said something to someone, he thought. Someone else thought this was a good idea. Sister? Carer? Andrew itched with the thought of being talked about. He itched for his companion’s unease. Itched to be able to say something to her. His finger solo became heavier on the wooden desktop. The muted atmosphere of the library pushed down on him suddenly, the asphyxiating stink of pointless timefilling squeezing the breath from his lungs.
The woman jumped up. She dashed towards the exit, shopper knocking her calves. Andrew sat motionless, realising too late that he should have gone after her.
Story of my life, he thought bitterly.
Then he thought about getting utterly, utterly wankered. There was a Tesco Express just across College Green, but Andrew knew such a moment as this deserved marking by a proper session in a proper pub. He thought about The Bunch of Grapes, The Sedan Chair, even the airy anonymity of The Pitcher and Piano. The easy conversation of the lubricated, however things might end up.
Eleven forty-three. Wait ‘till noon. Wait ‘till noon, for God’s sake.
Reasoning that it was a five minute walk to the harbourside bars, he packed his things away at eleven fifty-four, and was watching the second hand revolve on his watchface when the door to the Reading Room crashed open.
Andrew could not help but stare as she strode back towards him; the beauty that had been applied with such love was gone, scrubbed away by blue paper towels or loo roll or just a hearty splash from the basin. Her skin was damp and raw, her carefully twined hair pulled out into a wiry halo that dripped at the edges. She looked straight at him for the first time.
‘CHRIST ON A BICYCLE,’ she barked. Her eyes were as blue as George Melly’s hat, and there was a Bristolian softness around the edge of her voice, even in her agitation, that he hadn’t noticed before. Andrew opened his mouth to say something, then realised he had absolutely no clue what.
She held out her hand. ‘Well don’t just sit there like a cabbage, make yourself useful.’
She gestured again as she sat back down, and Andrew realised she was holding out a hairbrush: green, plastic, frizz-laden. He took it, circling to her side of the desk and drawing a chair from the next row to sit behind her. Remembering how his mother used to make his sister yell, he placed the flat of his free hand on top of the woman’s head, inserting the bristles near the crown and pulling downwards. The brush seemed reluctant to obey, so he tugged a little harder.
‘Oi,’ she said sharply. Her fruity scent was overlaid with more than a hint of institutional soap now. Andrew laughed louder than he should have, forgetting about the luxury of a pint of Stella. He tried again, but the brush became more entangled, hanging unassisted when he let go in desperation. Now it was the woman’s turn to giggle.
‘You can’t do that in here,’ the librarian whispered by Andrew’s head. ‘You’re disturbing people.’
‘Sorry,’ said Andrew. ‘I was just …’
‘Look, I’ve got everyone else to consider. This isn’t a hairdresser’s salon. If you don’t stop I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.’ The foundations of her sturdy voice trembled. ‘It’s just inappropriate behaviour in the library, isn’t it?’
‘It’s not inappropriate,’ said the woman, wrestling the hairbrush from her locks, ‘we’re not even touching, not really…’
‘I think that’s for me …’
‘Not that it’s any of your business …’
‘In fact, why don’t you just piss off back to your desk and sit your fat arse back down again?’ She waved the hairbrush dangerously as she sprang to her feet, breath ragged, squaring up to her dumpy, M&S-clad adversary. Their antagonist obligingly went a sickly shade of hairbrush-green. Andrew felt himself go pink. He looked at the two women, picked up his carrier bag, and picked up the hessian shopper.
‘Yeah, piss off,’ he said heartily. He gestured towards the exit. ‘After you, miss.’ He hoped the librarian would appreciate his mouthed apology as he followed his new friend out.
It was cold on Park Street. They almost huddled together as they made their way to the museum.