words fail me
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by Andrew Lee-Hart



It was on the tip of my tongue; it began with a vowel, to do with…being very happy, but more so…. No it wouldn’t come, something that was happening more and more; it must be old age. Not that I was feeling happy anyway – or whatever the word was - as I drove to the only library left in the city. 


Garish posters advertising cars and politicians looked down on me as I chugged along in my Mini, overwhelming me with colour.  I had been ignoring it all, thinking of when I was a student in Glasgow in the nineties; Moira, Laura and I had caught a train to Oban and stayed for the weekend. Oh the beauty of the mountains and the peace; taking our minds off our coursework and the madness going on all around us.


We had climbed Ben Nevis, or some of it and then – exhausted and cold - we hugged looking down into the depths, and for the first time I felt loved, and something else; something greater, but I cannot find the word. And so I continued to drive, my mind searching.


I asked my colleague Jonathan, it was the first thing I said to him, but we had been working together for several years and he knew me well, and so forgave my lack of ceremony.

“Oh yes, it’s….” and then he looked puzzled too, “I am sure I had it. It will come to me.”

“Never mind” I told him, “words keep disappearing, I think that I must be getting old.”

“We both are.”

I smiled, knowing that he would always be five years older than me, although he didn’t look it. In an ever-changing world Jonathan was one of the few constants in my life, and I loved him dearly.


“Where are the Raymond Chandler books? I am sure they were here last night, I remember flicking through “The Big Sleep”, so that we could use it for our Movie display.”

“God knows” muttered Jonathan, “the Committee were here last night, perhaps they took it, they were looking at our books again, but they did not want me to stay. I think there are a few more gaps, they always are when they visit.”

I sighed, remembering the days when we received new books, rather than have them taken away from us, although that had been only for a few heady months when I first joined, soon afterwards the restrictions began, both in our library and in our private lives.

“They were looking in our religion section as well, probably worth checking, if there is anything left to check.” Jonathan said looking cross.

I shrugged and wandered over but there was just two empty shelves, where are books on religion used to be, there was not even a Bible.


“So what did the Committee talk about?” I asked as we drank our Nescafe.

“They are talking of closing us down again.”

“They always say that, we are the only one left, they aren’t going to do that. And we hardly cost them anything.”

Jonathan sighed, “maybe, but if they can close all the other ones, then they can close ours too. They talked about our salaries….”

“Even though we haven’t had a raise in three years….” I interrupted.

“They didn’t mention that funnily enough, and then they talked about the building, how it could be used for other things…sold to Carpetworld or Walmart.”


I sighed and drank some more Nescafe, the Cravendale seemed slightly off, I would have to buy some more at lunchtime.

“Seriously now, you might want to think of getting another job.”

“Do you want me to leave Jonathan?”

“No of course I don’t, but I think they will close us down soon and I would hate to see you without a job and all that entails.”

I shuddered, a friend of mine from University had lost his job a year or two ago in a school, and had ended up in an Unemployment Hostel (now known as “Work Hostels”) in Norfolk and the two letters he had managed to send me had been horrendous, although his subsequent silence was even worse.


“But if I go they won’t replace me, and then we will definitely close.”

“It is only a matter of time, so you should jump. And we would still be friends; whether you like it or not.”

We stood up of one accord and held each other; I could feel his slightly plump body against mine; his smell of Old Spice, his warmth. We kissed briefly and then disengaged and I got on with my work. I knew that he was right, that I would have to find another job and leave all this behind.


That evening Carl came round and we made love.

“I think I love you” he told me.

“Love, what is love? I love WholeEarth and the Highlands of Scotland. Are there no other words.”

“You know what love is” he said, and kissed me, before throwing away his Durex.

“It does not mean anything anymore.” I told him, deliberately being cross; I wanted him to go so that I could read a bit before going to sleep, but I did not trust him enough to show him my secret stash of books. Not even Jonathan knew about it, although he probably realised I had one, as I am sure that he had one too.


Unfortunately I could not persuade Carl to leave, which meant we spent the evening watching some tedious thriller on the Hitachi, and then the next morning I drove him to work into the city. He turned the Pioneer on as I drove, finding Radio Pop Music.

“This is an old one” I said, as a tune I recognised came on, and I got ready to sing along, but the words never came, “this must be an instrumental version” I said after a moment.

“I don’t remember there being any words, I think it has always just been music. I love it, very uplifting.”

“There you go again; “love”; what does it mean; you love me, you love this song.”

He laughed, “well I do love it…and you.”


The song continued to play

“Really Carl, this used to be on the radio all the time, it is a classic. Something about “lonely people”, and a bit about a priest and an old woman, keeping her face in a jar, whatever that means.”

He looked at me puzzled, “sounds a bit weird, I definitely would have remembered a song like that.”

“But it is famous, I am sure it is.”

“The tune is.”


I asked Jonathan, “do you know that song, something about lonely people and a vicar, “no-one was saved”.”

“Err, no. I listen to classical music.”

“I know you do, but this one is famous, even you would know it.”

“Most pop music I hear is just cheesy tunes with la-laing along. I hate it.  Give me Mozart any day.”

“His operas are good.”

“Operas?  He didn’t write operas, did he? He wrote symphonies and piano concerti.”

“I thought he did, one about a marriage, and one about someone selling his soul to the government… but you are the expert.”

“I thought that I was.”


He walked away looking puzzled, and then I saw him reading something in our musical section; sadly depleted to just two books.  Clearly neither of them gave him what he wanted, and he wandered off to see what else was missing, humming a horn concerto as he did so.


“That church” has gone, “St. Luke’s, near where I live.”

I looked up from sipping my Twinings

“That’s a pity; I love the gothic look of it.”

“Gothic? What’s that?” he asked.

“Come on, you are an educated man.”

He looked puzzled, “I think that I used to know. All these words disappearing. I don’t know.”


We still have churches; not many, and those we do, like St. Luke’s often disappear; hauled down in the night. I went to one with Carl once, when I still thought that the relationship was more than just a means of stress relief. But it was just music and incense; no Bible, no preaching; just pictures and noise. Synagogues had been the first to go; for Jews words are Holy and without the Torah what is there? And then Mosques and Temples, now just the occasional tired looking church, almost as endangered as our library.


After work I went into the last Waterstones to buy A Bible, just out of curiosity, but the assistant looked at me blankly.

“Well have you got a religious section?”

“We used to” she admitted, “but it stopped being used….”

I looked round the shops but there were only DIY, cookery and childcare books, and these consisted of pictures and diagrams. There were fewer books even than in the library.

“Didn’t this shop used to be bigger?” I asked an old lady, who had walked in behind me, “with more books”.

“But who needs books?  I have a computer at home, I just come in for the Costa. I used to go in with my husband but now that he has gone, it is somewhere to go in the afternoon.”


The next morning not only were there fewer books in the library – just one shelf, and that not even full, but even the library sign had been taken down and the handful of posters that we had created.

“The Committee were here last night again, with hammers and a skip; they have only just gone.”

Jonathan looked old and tired; just sitting in his office staring out in front of him, god knows what he could see.


I held back my tears as I walked round the empty buildings, remembering the shelves full of books; novels, art encyclopaedias, poetry…oh the how I loved our poetry section, and our rare books in our basement; the hours I spent down there looking at the beautiful illustrations and breathing in the smell of old books. And there were our users; the rich and poor, young and old. Some just wanting somewhere warm to stay, others doing research or keeping up with news. Even our local writer; who used to come in to use our photocopier and look through our books. He had long gone; sent to a Work Camp and never heard of again.  And Heather; who became my friend, but also disappeared, or perhaps she was just scared of being seen in a library.


The building seemed cold and desolate, as if it had always been empty, and that the past was just a false memory; something that I had read or seen on the Hitachi. I found Jonathan, who was tidying up the mess left by the Committee. We did not say anything, we just held each other for a moment, and then we kissed, kissed as if that was all there was left in the world. After I while I gently released myself and walked out of the building. I could not cry.




We looked like convicts, as we walked by the side of the road with our bin bags, our orange uniforms and our guard. In fact he was our “supervisor” and he was friendly enough, but he watched us all the time and did not pick litter, so clearly he was our guard, and I did not trust him, not one bit.


I had gone to the Job Agency the next morning. There was a long queue of people; most of whom looked old and weary, and I imagined that I would struggle to find something. But to my surprise I was offered this job immediately; the young man who served me seemed surprised at my enthusiasm, but I had assumed that I would not get anything and would be sent to one of the Work Hostels in a month.

“At least it will be outdoors and help me lose some weight.”

He smirked slightly before giving me the details of the job; there was no interview or test, I was in.


And I enjoyed it; yes there was not much brainwork, but I got out and met people and my team was a good one, and incredibly I was better paid than I had been as a librarian, admittedly that was not much. I was able to live the same lifestyle as previously. I did miss the library and Jonathan…. Jonathan more than anything.


Carl had also decided to leave me. I went to see him in the toyshop, after I left the library and told him what had happened. Perhaps I just wanted love, or sex. Hoped that he would take the rest of the day off and take me home.

“That’s worrying” he said, as he stood, watching a couple of children looking at Lego models. “It wasn’t much I suppose, but it was a job.”

“Not much? It was my life.”

“It is a bit dodgy. Hopefully you will find something better.”

It was clear that he wanted me to go, that I was embarrassing him, so after a moment I left, wondering why I had spent so much time with somebody I had so little in common with. I did try and ring him a couple of times after that but he did not answer and I found that I did not care, not one bit.


And then Jonathan disappeared. He had rung me a few times after I left and we talked for hours most evenings. And sometimes we met for a Nescafe at Costa. He was still being kept on for the time being in the library, but just sat and drew and listened to music on the Hitachi that he had brought in.

“I know that I should go, but so long as I am there, well there is still hope.”

“But you wanted me to go.”

He looked at me sadly, “I didn’t want you to go, but there was no point both of us being in danger.”


“Don’t worry, I am just being silly.”

But I knew that he was worried. Were libraries so important? Presumably they would just let him go if they no longer needed him.


And that was the last time that I saw him. Two days later when I tried to ring him his telephone appeared to be disconnected, no sound at all, except perhaps the quietest of humming. On the next three evenings the same thing happened, and there was no message from him, I was worried particularly after our last conversation. But also I missed him; I realised that for years I had never gone a couple of days without speaking to him and that he was my only friend.


I had never visited Jonathan at his home, but I knew his address; like me he lived in a flat, although at the other end of the city. I walked there one Saturday but I could not get into the building. I rang his buzzer and there was no answer and then I tried the five buzzers below his, but nobody replied to any of them either.


It was a hot day but I suddenly felt cold and had the feeling that this was desolate and the whole building was empty, just Carpetworld and Dulux. Working it out I guessed that Jonathan’s flat was at the back of the building, on the second floor and so I walked around to the rear and looked up at what must have been his window, but I could see nothing, just the sun reflecting back at me. After trying all the buzzers again, without luck I went home.


The following Saturday I tried again; although I was not optimistic. But when I rang Jonathan’s bell, after a moment there was a noise and to my surprise and relief somebody did answer.


“No” came a voice, distorted by electronics and height.

“I have come to enquire about my friend Jonathan.”

The intercom went silent and I stood there for a good few minutes and nothing happened. I was just about to try again when an old man opened the front door.


“Sorry love, I am the caretaker, I am not supposed to let anybody in.”

He looked to be in his seventies and was black.

“Oh, I am just looking for my friend Jonathan,” I told him, “he has disappeared, and none of his neighbours seem to answer when I ring.”

“No they wouldn’t” he said and then beckoned me in and led me into one of the flats which was empty.

“How do you have your Twinings?”


We drank surprisingly good Twinings, sitting together companionably on the floor.

“I am not sure where your friend has gone,” he told me, “I only started here a couple of days ago. Most of the flats are empty, and I have been sent to tidy them up, send all the possessions away.”

“What happened to his books”.

I realised I was trusting him by asking him this, but he had let me in and seemed kind.

He looked embarrassed, “we don’t talk of books, but they will have been burnt.”

I sighed, “but where will he have gone?”

“I don’t know. If he cares, and he can, he will try to contact you I am sure.”


I finished off my drink and he helped me to my feet.

“If you hear anything….” And I gave him my number, but I knew that he wouldn’t hear anything, that Jonathan would not be back. But at least I could pretend to have done something, however little… 




I saw it wedged between the wall and a waterpipe; a sheet of paper, light blue and incredibly it appeared to have writing on. I discretely picked it up; the writing was in pen – even more unusual – and it looked difficult to read.  I walked by the side of a building pretending I was trying to get some rubbish from a grid, and tried to decipher the message.

“I have eaten

the plums that were in

the icebox


and which

you were probably


for breakfast


Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold”


I looked at it and wonder what it meant and why the words were shaped so strangely?  I repeated it over to myself, until I realised that somebody was standing behind me. John, our “Supervisor”.

“What is that?”

And he tore it from me before I had time to reply. He seemed to shiver when he realised that it had writing on. He hastily ripped it up into four, and then put it in his blue bag that he kept for anything written.

“You have been here long enough; you know the rules.”

“Sorry” I muttered.

“This is serious, you should have handed it straight to me.”

“I know, I was just about to honestly” and I stroked his jacket and what I hoped was a seductive sort of way, “I know.”

He shrugged and walked away and I got on with my work, wondering if I would be reported and sacked or worse.


Throughout the day I repeated the words on the paper in an attempt to remember them, and when I got home I wrote them down on the inside of a shopping bag which I hid with my small collection of books.


I was not sure if I had written it down correctly, nor was I sure why it haunted me so much, it was almost poetic or was it just nonsense. I had vague memories of the poetry that I used to read, but they were gone now, all I had was this strange squib. But it was something.  If only Jonathan was there to talk to about it, and to hold me and make me laugh, but there was nobody, so I cooked some Richmonds and then gazed out of my window onto the soulless world below.


That Sunday, on an impulse, I drove to the library; perhaps Jonathan would be there, sitting at his desk, or reading something which had just arrived, and we would hug and kiss like we used to do, and he would tell me about his book, or something he had listened to on his Philips, last night.


I had not been sacked from my job as litter picker, but I knew that my days were numbered, that I would still be gone. But instead of feeling sad and frightened I did not care; as if the world had become silly and nothing could hurt me anymore, and perhaps I would be taken to where Jonathan was, and if he was there it could not be too bad. Anyway I had nothing left here.


As I reached the building, I noticed that the car park was almost full, something I had never seen, even just after I started at the library and we had regular borrowers. Eventually someone left the car park, and I drove into their space. As I walked inside the building that I had once known so well, I could smell rubber and nylon and everywhere were carpets of every different colour.

“Can I help you?” said a young man, “what kind of carpet are you looking for?”

“I’m not” I told him, “I used to work here…. when it was a library. I just thought I would look at what had happened to the building, and to see if there were any books left.”

He looked at me as if I had said something rude, but before he had time to think of what to say, and to ask my name, I had left.


There was a park nearby where I used to have my lunch when it was hot. I walked through the grass watching children running about and parents listening to music on their headphones or gazing blankly about them. I wanted to describe what I could see about me, but I did not have the words and so I continued to walk humming to myself a tune that probably once meant something to someone.


And then the word came to me that I had forgotten so long ago, it was “ecstasy”, but I no longer knew what it meant, or what it describe. And so I continued to walk.




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