SNAIL TRAIL (2) by DF Lewis
Coco was in the library before any of his companions had a chance even to take off their coats in the hall. He was led by the smell of foxing. He remembered exactly why they had been invited – to catalogue the largest collection of books outside the ownership of the State or of the Royal Family. Yet the house was worth a few gasps, the others thought, before getting down to work. No delay for Coco, however, as he chose his own carrel in an alcove between the works of Dick and Dickens.
Sir Arthur Mezanthus was in charge of the cataloguing party together with his even more famous sister Amy Ewbank (writer of children’s stories for those untutored in her works) - yet Coco was really the practical bibliographic brain upon whom they depended. The group was renowned as ‘shock troops’ in book-collecting circles: ready to pounce on any dusty lines of disordered spines. There were emergencies, for example, when a library-owner suddenly died and his or her creditors were poised to sell off all the possessions at short notice. That was when Sir Arthur and his cohorts usually received a surreptitious sniff of a collection’s potential for a book recovery ambush … and here they were today, scouring even the smallest rooms of the house for hidden tomes. By now, Amy had flounced into the library, slightly annoyed that Coco was already ensconced there before she had the chance to survey the scope of the task. Arthur and a few others (including dowager twins) were still opening broom-cupboards elsewhere in the large rambling house, leaving any spectacle of the core collection (usually in a room called ‘library’ but not always) until last. Savouring the anticipation.
“I see you’ve bagged your carrel,” said Amy, and she put her bag on one of the reading-tables. She stared at him as if she snubbed his very presence.
“There’re plenty more,” answered Coco, pointing towards a set of private study areas – admittedly more like box-pews in an ancient church than carrels – and he slipped his feet from his shoes, as if settling in for the duration. Not only had the pungent aroma of old books been able to lead him here before all the others but it also filled him with an old-fashioned delight: with visions of fiction he was yet to read: but he kept that to himself: he was mocked enough already for some of his more clownish antics when on a literary campaign such as the one unfolding today: foxed and signed with unreadable inscriptions.
Not only that aforementioned aroma, then, but also a trail of insects or even larger creatures that often beset books with nibbling and silver sticky trails. The threading of the corridors had been rather Hansel-and-Gretel, but he could not yet imagine having refreshment – quite yet. Peppering of crumbs that would help them find the kitchen. They would need to pick straws, in any event, to choose who was to rustle up cakes and tea – and he did not want to abandon his carrel so early in the day, short of any unexpected call of nature involving a rethink.
By now, Sir Arthur himself had puffed and bellowed as he found them in the library. He was hard of hearing unless you got on his right side.
A number of Sir Arthur’s party were later lounging in the drawing-room. The dowager twins had been unlucky enough to be find themselves on kitchen duty – the strange thing being that this was invariably the case on every book foray in which they had been involved. Coco had abandoned his carrel and sat in an armchair throwing a ball from hand to hand. He had been brilliant in organising the day’s cataloguing and so deserved a little recreation, he thought. This was relaxing. Even more relaxing, paradoxically, when he threw another ball into the physical calculation. Then another. Till he was literally juggling. Each ball a ricochet of thoughts. One book, he recalled, he had found quite unfathomable, its condition almost mulched beyond recognition as a book; yet the signature stared out at him on a particularly integral space on one page: it was opposite the barely readable title of the book: DO DROODS DREAM OF ANGELFISH? The supposed signature was stained purple ink veining into the vexed texture of the text of an apparent introduction or preamble. It may even have been the prologue of the novel itself. And Coco was sure it was a novel despite suspicions of non-fiction in the illustrations and pressed flowers.. Squashed bodies of flies did not help the scrutiny. If every book had been like this one, the cataloguing would have lasted months.
The cake and teas were brought in by the dowagers. A rich array of choice pastries on silver tiers more like candelabra than culinary devices. The tea infused in a giant samovar, filling the air with a new aroma of dusty streets in modern Samarkand. A few manicured sandwiches, and these would indeed be easy to digest with the rind removed from the fillings. Sir Arthur was now ensconced in an armchair and was already munching noisily. Amy, his sister, was subconsciously abridging the whole scene ready for children to read. She did not risk her own digestion on foreign food even at the best of times. She did not know where it would lead. So why be led? A bird’s appetite needed little sustenance. And she had solitary midnight feasts in her own bedroom in honour of her schooldays. Crisps and crinkly-sounding toffee wraps and dandelion & burdock. That was enough to keep her going. There was very little money in cataloguing the tomes of the dead. So she treated it like a hobby. She had plenty of Royalties from the pocket money of her young readers. Sir Arthur was her agent, so he shared the pickings, too. Most of her fans however were now dead. Dead to anything but Harry Potter. Diminishing returns. Yet they hardly noticed. Too busy in strange forgotten libraries countrywide to realise that tomorrow would be the last time their bank manager would be polite to them. Royalties were dying, too, in old Paris tunnels or the back of coaches on the way to yet another Coronation. One long run with Elizabeth but now all was staccato: ricochets of personality juggling their own motives to become the next reality prince. Harry’s son Edwin was next in line. Hard to imagine what a parlous state the monarchy had reached. Chimney children with black faces as if the past had gone full circle and become the present again.
Coco gulped down his tea, eschewing the cake and sandwiches, determined to return to the library and reclaim his carrel. Which he did. But it all now looked rather forlorn. In the morning, even his own solitude had been up-beat. Now he longed for the others to return to grace the long dark wet afternoon with at least a smattering of repartee. He stared at the book he had left cataloguing. This was not the mulched book of Drood, as he had actually skipped that one in disgust. No, the book now under scrutiny was one which was stickier than his own fingers from the cream cake he had picked up but thrown away after looking more closely at it. It was about a circus. And there was an illustration which would haunt his dreams forevermore. Huge snails circling the inside of the ring and a ringmaster in the centre with a whip as if he were controlling elephants. They left a silver trail in their wake. Coco could even hear the baying of the crowd and the distant roars from the menagerie; large-maned faces mooning at him. In the roof of the shadowy big top, a trapeze artist tried to maintain his or her purchase on the spinning tricks of body and soul, fearful of dropping towards the safety-net beneath wherein a giant spider awaited the trapeze’s body with chittering glee. He slammed the book with a shuddering thump: throwing dust into his own face and sticking to his make-up.
He preferred hot chocolate to tea. He would tell the dowagers later. He continued in a desultory fashion to sift the books one by one; as they came off the shelf, half-expecting the others in the party to arrive at any moment, to relieve him. He was however the bit Amy had abridged. And he wept black tears. He’d left no crumbs. In fact, he had no crumbs to leave.