I recently watched a man drink a whole bottle of salad crème in the library, and there wasn’t a salad leaf in sight. Straight from the bottle. Glug, glug, glug. To me, this epitomises libraries in the twenty-first century: a catch-all for those in freefall from the community services and projects that have been cut by the government, looking for a place to belong or snooze or drink condiments. As a writer, obsessed with people-watching, I love it.
It’s possible to work in the separate study room in absolute silence, away from those who have drifted in for weekly colouring-in, reminiscing or language exchange groups, or simply to have arguments with their partners at full volume, and I do this when I’m close to a deadline, but for most part, I can’t resist dropping myself in the centre of this vibrant soup of people, most of whom would be surprised to learn that you can borrow actual books from the library as well as charging your phone. It’s gold, and I don’t want to miss a moment.
There’s also the food issue; the staff in the silent study area are particularly unforgiving and appear at your desk like riot police at a crack house at the slightest sniff of a cookie or a crisp. Sirens have sounded and ejector seats flung for lesser crimes than a rogue sandwich. And I love to eat while I work, which is exactly what I was doing last Wednesday afternoon – working in the noisy part of the library where no one says a thing if you bring a portion of chips, a tub of ice cream and a flask of tea in with you. And then I saw him. The milky-eyed man from Hong Kong.
I’m quite good at zoning the hum of conversation out and getting to work, but I’m less able to concentrate when my curiosity is on fire, and this old guy had every synapse in my brain glowing. Spread out on the table in front of him was an array of goods – books and newspapers, a KFC sandwich and coffee, some kind of dispenser shaped like a house, two multi-pack boxes of Walnut Whips, crisps, and a stuffed bag for life that I would have loved to rummage through. But it was more the arrangement that stood out: sprawled, as if this was where he lived now. And it was the way he interacted with it; he would bite the sandwich before replacing it precisely, glance at a book before returning it, and slowly move around before taking his seat again. Then he would gently rest the side of one hand on the palm of the other, like a knife on a chopping board, close his eyes and disappear into meditation. I couldn’t take my eyes off this strange but peaceful creature.
And he’d spotted me looking.
“Wrong number!” he laughed as he hovered by my table and pointed down at my phone. By now I was texting my partner about him.
His eyes were glowing as he smiled down at me, and I couldn’t help laughing at his humour and the open, warm way in which he had made contact. I was in love with him already.
He returned to his seat after a short exchange, and I continued texting, but when I looked up, he was standing over my table once again with a Walnut Whip in each hand – one mint, one original. Again, his face was so peaceful and full of kindness.
“For you,” he offered and gave an almost imperceptible bow of the head.
I’m vegan, but I was genuinely touched and didn’t want to insult (or bore) him, so I thanked him profusely and happily took the gift. I know enough people who love chocolate.
“I wish I had something to give you in return,” I told him, taking a mental inventory of my bag, genuinely wishing there was something in there other than my notebook and a box of tampons.
“You don’t need to,” he smiled. “It’s not Christmas.”
Gift accepted, we quickly moved onto getting to know each other, and before I knew it, he was sitting with me. He told me that he had moved from Hong Kong with his father when he was thirteen and had been in town for the last forty-five years. I couldn’t imagine the culture shock and impact of being separated from your homeland at such a young age. He told me about the Opium Wars, Hong Kong independence and how good the chicken was in the buffet restaurant just down the road from the library. An old school friend was murdered near there a few weeks ago, but I didn’t bring it up.
He then asked what I did, and I told him that I write people’s life stories. I may have been imagining it, but curtains twitched on a few other tables when I said this. Everyone has a story to tell.
“You should write my life,” he told me. “My life has been exceptional,” he added, and I knew that he was telling the truth.
I looked down at the two Walnut Whips sitting on my laptop, and there was nothing I wanted more in that moment than to write his life story and send it out into the world for posterity. I was giddy with love for him and all the tales he had to tell, and before I could stop my hand from doing it, I had scrawled my number on a piece of paper and arranged to meet him at Costa on Monday. The sensible part of me was already backpedalling, and I explained that I work on so few project that there was only a slim chance that I could do anything for him, publishers are only interested when there’s an exceptional angle, and not all life stories are sellable, but I couldn’t deny that I would love to spend an hour with him and hear his story, and he seemed happy enough with that. I was happy too.
So, this week, I am grateful for the man who drifted over with the two Walnut Whips in the library, made me smile and booked an hour to tell me about his life. I look forward to discovering what Monday brings.