Judith resumed her seat at the Information Desk and noted the interruption on an old catalogue card. That’s five so far today, she thought, obviously the new notice had failed to attract the students’ attention. Judith wasn’t opposed to mobile phones; on the contrary, she considered they were a useful invention. Her Nokia 1110 (switched off) always occupied a nook in her large handbag. But an academic library was not the place for conversation of a personal nature and irritating jingles disturbed the scholarly quiet she endeavoured to nurture.
The Music and Literature Library attracted mainly staff and post-graduate students for which Judith was grateful. Gone were the days when she relished the hustle and bustle of a large undergraduate library, at fifty-three she preferred the more rarefied atmosphere of serious study. Unfortunately, since the advent of the mobile phone, even the most diligent students seemed unable to contemplate several hours of research without access to the outside world.
Quiet restored, Judith turned her attention to the pamphlet she was preparing. The afternoon advanced steadily without further mobile intrusion. Just before five, she shut down her computer and began to tidy her desk.
At first glance, the catalogue card propped against the printer, appeared to be just one of the old cards kept in a neat pile by her phone but on picking it up, she noticed purple script bordered by red stars.
Curious, she peered closer, it read: The terracotta blouse tones beautifully with the ebony skirt.
She smiled, imagining a student writing the note for a joke, hoping to bring a flush to her pale cheeks. The card joined others in the recycling bin.
The following day, staff sickness took her away from the Information Desk to the Circulation Desk. Checking out books and processing library fines fully occupied her morning but after lunch she found time to unload the returns chute. Near the bottom, beneath a large hardcover, she discovered another catalogue card decorated with red stars.
This one read: ‘Autumn sunlight accentuates the golden lights in your lovely hair.’
Reaching for the scanner, she quickly checked-in the book. The borrower’s name was unfamiliar but a quick peek at the patron record revealed a student no longer enrolled at the university. A little disappointed, she tossed the second catalogue card in the bin.
* * *
Over the weekend, more serious matters occupied her thoughts. Her mother fell in the street and was taken to hospital with a broken leg. Propped up in bed surrounded by flowers from absent sons, Mother demanded unrestricted access to her only daughter. Obediently Judith listed several library extension numbers in her mother’s diary.
“But how will I know which number to call?” Her mother asked anxiously.
“It doesn’t matter, whoever answers will come and fetch me.”
“But it could be urgent.”
“It’s only a small library Mother, I wouldn’t be more than a couple of minutes.”
“Supposing you’re eating lunch in the gardens?”
“Then phone my mobile. I’ll take it with me whenever I leave the library.”
Mother sighed and flopped back on the pillows. Before long a lace-edged handkerchief appeared from beneath the covers. Thin fingers held it delicately, dabbed faded blue eyes.
“Is your leg troubling you Mother?”
“No dear, I’m just a little upset.”
“I really thought you’d make an exception for me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The no mobile phones in the library rule. Nothing wrong with my memory dear, you told me about the new notice.”
“Well it hasn’t made any difference so far. But if it would make you feel better, I’ll keep my mobile switched on while you’re in hospital.”
Her mother smiled. “Pass me a chocolate, dear.”
* * *
Throughout Monday Judith felt on edge, dreading the familiar ring. Every time a jingle shattered the library quiet (seven during the morning alone), her fingers twitched, creating a line of errors in Microsoft Word. Fortunately Mother phoned during the lunch break so seagulls milling around the park bench in hope of a handout were the only ones to hear her over-loud complaints.
By Tuesday Judith had forgotten about catalogue cards with red stars. On Wednesday she once more teamed the terracotta blouse with the ebony skirt and wore her shoulder-length hair down for a change.
Packing up at five, Judith noticed she’d received a text message during the day. It can’t be urgent, she thought, Mother thank goodness, remained ignorant of text technology. Poking the mobile phone in her handbag, she left the library and hurried to the station. Safely installed in a window seat, she decided to check the text message.
“Loose golden curls create a softer image,” she read.
Automatically, her free hand reached up to touch her hair.
At home she tried to discover the identity of the text messenger but despite frequent referral to the Nokia brochure, he/she remained anonymous. Only close friends and relatives were privy to her mobile number and Judith was confident none of them would resort to such silly games.
Archive queries took up Thursday morning and it was lunchtime before she returned to her desk. She’d completely forgotten the switched on Nokia 1110 in her desk and prayed no one had called during her absence. Pale cheeks flushed as she opened the desk drawer.
1 missed call.
“Damn,” she muttered.
The caller was her mother and naturally she was annoyed no one had answered the phone. The message was quite unnecessary, any more chocolates and Mother would upset her delicate stomach.
The afternoon remained uneventful till four-thirty when two text messages appeared within minutes. Exasperated, Judith switched off the phone and flung it into her bag. Thank goodness her mother was being discharged from hospital the following day.
Over the weekend, the Nokia 1110 was unusually quiet and Judith had to admit a mysterious text message would have been a welcome intrusion. By Sunday evening she concluded both card and text messages must have come from Justin, the flamboyant art student employed to shelve books. A check of the roster on Monday should confirm her suspicions. It irked her to think of him rummaging in her desk drawer. Oh why had she taped the number to the back of her phone?
Early Monday morning she used highlighters to decorate six catalogue cards before sneaking into the Archive Room to use the old manual typewriter. Messages typed, she placed the cards at random between books waiting to be re-shelved. Initial sorting was always done near her desk so she could easily observe Justin’s reaction to her rather risqué missives.
But if he noticed the cards at all, Justin didn’t respond. More importantly he spent his entire shift either sorting books or shelving in the Reference Section directly opposite her desk so he couldn’t have sent the text messages logged at nine-fifty and ten-thirty.
Waiting for the evening train, Judith switched on her mobile phone to check for afternoon messages from Mother. Three, she noted, steeling herself for a torrent of complaint. Two were indeed from her mother but the third was delivered in an unfamiliar accent she found impossible to decipher. After a couple of replays, she decided it was probably an advertisement for a retirement seminar.
* * *
Peace reigned in the library throughout the following morning, convincing Judith the mobile phones notice was finally taking effect. Decorated catalogue cards were also absent so the bright printed card, discovered on top of her monitor just before lunch, came as a bit of a surprise.
Seminar on Commonwealth Literature Tuesday 9th March Lecture Theatre 2, 7pm. All welcome.
Sounds interesting, she thought, pity it’s such short notice. Idly, she turned the card over.
Your most becoming black dress with the hibiscus-flower pattern would be very appropriate for a seminar with a tropical flavour. I guarantee an engaging evening, was written in purple ink.
The card fluttered to the floor as her hands smoothed silky fabric.
During lunch in the park, Judith studied the purple script concluded it resembled the other messages and decided to break one of her cardinal rules. Her tone was suitably contrite as she addressed the Nokia 1110.
“I’m so sorry Mother but I can’t visit you this evening. We’re rather short staffed so I have to do the late shift.”
She held the phone away from her ear for Mother’s response.
Back in the library, a steady stream of students banished tropical evening thoughts and it was almost five before she remembered to contact the English Department.
“I’m not sure who’s speaking at the seminar,” answered a female voice. “I was just passing so I picked up the phone. Joanne, our administrative assistant, has gone home.” Papers rustled. “Our visiting professor should be able to help, he organised the seminar. He’s on 349. Want me to transfer you?”
“No thanks I’d better not bother him.”
Seated alone in the campus cafe, Judith plucked the Nokia 1110 from her bag and tentatively called the professor’s number.
“You have reached Professor Evans,’ said voice-mail, ‘please leave a message after the beep.”
Suddenly she remembered the incomprehensible phone message. “Welsh,” she said aloud, imagining a nationalistic professor for whom English was a second language. She tried to recall if a Professor Evans had ever visited the library but couldn’t put a face to the name. A Welsh admirer, she mused, conjuring images of green valleys and grey slagheaps.
Towards seven she entered Lecture Theatre 2 and located a seat near the front. Two of the three chairs on the stage were already occupied by familiar figures from the English Department. She waited anxiously for the third academic.
“Delighted you could make it, Judith,” said a distinctly non-Welsh voice behind her, “Perhaps we can talk over coffee later, I have to go now.”
The lights dimmed as she turned to respond. She caught a fleeting glimpse of a tall white-haired man disappearing into the foyer.
“Who’s the third speaker?” she asked her neighbour.
“Professor Andugu,” the girl answered. “There he is now.” She pointed to the stage.
A tall, white-haired man was striding towards the empty chair. Illuminated in lambent light his ebony face glistened and dark eyes gleamed like liquid chocolate. Judith’s pale hand covered her red mouth; her cheeks flushed sunset-pink.
“Is he the visiting professor?” she whispered.
The girl nodded.
* * *
According to University News published the following week, visiting Professor Evans Simyu Andugu of Nairobi University delivered an informative and entertaining lecture on African literature that evening. Judith however, heard very little and absorbed even less.
Purple became the dominant colour in her life, its rich tones symbolizing sultry nights in an over-heated apartment high above the winter city. During daylight hours, Evans abandoned his flowing purple robe for western-style trousers teamed with yellow or scarlet shirts adorned with intricate designs. On Judith’s birthday, he donned a magnificent midnight blue robe emblazoned with crimson stars. More than a few conservative eyebrows rose when he swept into the library to take her for lunch.
The Nokia 1110 remained switched off during working hours but became a vital leisure time tool. On the last teaching day of third semester Judith was eating sandwiches in the gardens when her mobile phone rang. Her pensive mood faded as she anticipated her lover’s habitual midday message. But instead of, See you soon. I love you, she read:
I must leave your land soon. Please join me in mine. As my wife.
“I should be delighted,” she keyed, and looking up, laughed out loud at the sight of her purple-robed professor scattering seagulls as he raced across the spring-green grass.
About the Author
Sue Parritt grew up in England and emigrated to Australia in 1970. Her poetry and short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies in Australia, UK and the USA. Recently retired, she is now working on a screenplay ‘Sannah and the Pilgrim’ the story of a group of women (descendants of Environmental refugees from drowned Pacific islands) and their struggle against the oppressive government in twenty-fourth century Australia.
Photo credit: Stephen Coburn – Fotolia.com