I go to the library to write because the library has no internet. That’s what I tell myself. At home, for weeks, I’ve been unable to concentrate. I see where my manuscript needs attention but I’m annoyed by my story, my characters, the small taps of my typing. Even encouraging words from an agent and an editor have not inspired me. A friend tells me I need a change of scenery, a place where I can’t fritter away my day.
I think our local library might be that place. I go there a lot with my sons. I’m happy there.
On my first solo visit to the library I pace in circles like a dog bedding down for the night; I search for the perfect writing spot. I work at a communal table for a while, but the nearby drink vending machine is popular, and although I enjoy the space for my stacks of notes, I feel exposed. I move to a cubicle, where I discover I can plug in my laptop rather than watch the charge drain away. (The fact this was a discovery now seems curiously stupid, but it was thrilling at the time.) The cubicle is cramped, so I put my bag, phone and coffee on the cubicle desk to my left, and my papers on the one to the right. There are no more than a dozen people in the library so my expansiveness goes ignored.
The library truly does not have internet access that day. The librarian is diligent in letting everyone know. As each comma-shaped pensioner passes through the entrance, she informs them there is no internet, ‘no computers are working, none of them. There is no internet and we don’t know when it will be back up. We’ve called but no one can tell us when we’ll have the internet again.’
She walks around the library to tell us individually. She looks at my screen, a Word document, a document full of words that aren’t working. ‘They’re fixing some pipes in the street so the internet is down. We don’t have internet.’ I nod. ‘Okay, thanks.’
She looks at the white-haired, wiry man who is lowering himself into a chair at the round pine desk behind me. He’s holding a copy of The Guardian. ‘There’s no internet,’ she says loudly. ‘There’s nothing. We have nothing.’ This strikes me as an odd thing to say in a building devoted to housing books. ‘Well, there’s some good news,’ he says.
She purses her lips. She looks irritated that no one understands the seriousness of her bulletin. No one even seems interested. She swivels on one low heel at the sound of the front door opening and marches forth to tell the two lanky, tousled-haired twenty-something men who walk in that there is no internet. They might care, I think. But while she is saying, loudly – increasingly loudly and stridently – that there is No Internet at All, Not Any in the Whole Library, one of the men checks his phone. He doesn’t need the librarian’s internet; he has his own.
I get a lot of writing done after that until the internet reappears, three hours later. The librarian shares this development with extra vim. She’ll be exhausted tonight, spent, feet up, a well-earned gin and tonic in hand, telling her husband about how the internet was down and she had to make sure everyone was kept up to date.
Santa visits the library the next day. The noisy librarian, wearing felt antlers and spangly earrings, corrals the children into a circle and tells them to put their hands over their eyes because a special surprise visitor is coming. It can’t be a surprise really, since the children came to the library to see Santa and his imminent visit is announced on posters all around them. But he’s special, no question. The children sit, cross-legged, open-mouthed, and slap their fingers across their eyes. The man who sits two cubicles down from me (because he had to sit two cubicles away because I have again owned three work spaces with my belongings) leaps up when he hears the jingly bells and deep-throated ‘ho ho ho’. He is in his sixties, I’d guess, but he reacts with the enthusiasm of a young boy. ‘It’s been a while,’ he says when I look up at him. I smile though I’m not sure what has been a while – a while since he’s seen Santa? How often does he see Santa? A while since he felt excited? A while since he stood up?
Visit number three, my last to date, goes as horribly wrong as a visit to a suburban library can. There are more people – more elderly readers calmly peering over their glasses as they consider the notes they’ve written, more students sipping on large lattes, more librarians chatting amiably to one another about the upcoming staff party. I sit in my cubicle – mine – but think that today it would be rude to take three workspaces. That civility is a mistake. A wide, jowly middle-aged man sits right next to me. He sprawls in the small space – knees wide, elbows out, chair pushed back. He sits right next to me though there are other places to sit. I bristle like a cat. He flicks open his laptop, flicks open his phone, bangs one-handed at his keyboard, talks in what any right-thinking librarian would consider an outside voice. The student nearest me, a sensible two desks away, packs her bag and leaves. I stay, willing the man to move.
He found a truck, he tells his wife. I hear her response (‘How much?’) because he holds his mobile in front of his mouth, as though he’s about to eat it. The truck is on offer for a good price, better than the one he found online last night, on that other site. ‘What site?’ she asks. He stays on the phone even when they’re both silent. Hang up, I think. Hang up. He touches the phone to his chin and says, ‘Dunno, I’ll look. It was… Dunno.’ She coughs. ‘What are you doing?’ he asks. She’s looking for a teacher, a better one. ‘Make sure you check where they’re from,’ he instructs. ‘Make sure they’re Australian.’ They stay on the phone, both tapping, while they talk about trucks, dinner, the call she had this morning from Vodaphone. They keep talking as he spills water on his shirt front, digs in his bag for a piece of paper with a phone number on it, checks his wallet to see how much money is in there.
I move. I should have moved right away, but I was in the perfect spot, made imperfect by someone I hoped had a physical attention span that matched his mental one. I do a few solid hours’ work at a communal table until my bladder is bursting. There’s a bathroom at the library, of course, but to use it involves deciding whether to leave your laptop, notebooks and all else at the shared table with a group of strangers or take them with you into the toilet. I worry that the woman next to me would think I pegged her as a thief, or that the olive-skinned teen would slump at yet another quiet act of racism. I decide the only decent thing to do is leave everything I brought on the table, take longer in the bathroom than I need to, and berate myself for not having faith in humanity. It’s a miracle I’ve written as much of a manuscript as I have given how much time I spend thinking about Everything Else In the World.
After that debacle, I write at home, but the internet pecks at my cheek, my dogs nag to visit the park, the vegetable patch needs water. And while I am comfortable being alone, and often yearn for it, I keen for the library. I realise I like the mild pressure of having company, and if I plan a little better, I’m certain the company will be less obtrusive. I like being in the presence of so many wonderful books and journals, the shadows and seriousness of writers I revere. I like my manuscript, flawed though it is. I like the job of trying to be better.
It’s simple. I need to get on with it, to finish something I started. I need to treat the library like any office I’ve worked in. I need to pick my spot, move on if I need to, and keep writing. Keep writing.