12/21/2012

Between the Edge and the Abyss

This is a Southfield Story. 

Working in a public library you cultivate an awareness of the place that your library resides in. (You have to; it’s part of how you provide your service.) Your customers are a sample of the type of inhabitants the area is essentially comprised of, be they Zombies, Vampires or Mountain dwelling Hippie’s. 
 
Invariably you tend to get a patron or two that represent the best, worse or downright weird of a specific area and for some reason or other they like to read. 
A lot. 

So Plumstead will have a visit from plucky Mrs X who is 94, still drives, works in one of the coffee shops in the area and has strong opinion about where a book should be shelved, which is here not there

Tokai will have the Z Family. Three generations all crowding into the library on a Saturday, five minutes before closing time and arguing loudly about what they have or have not read. 

Simonstown Library is a small library but its borrowers are mostly naval guys, upstanding citizens of the Simonstown area and the space cadets from the nearest mountain commune who have mind melded with nature long enough and now need a good book to read. 

The larger libraries do have these patrons visiting but they are background noise to the general hustle and bustle of the particular problems facing larger library. (Besides Mrs X would definitely not approve of Bellville’s Library’s shelving but sadly this won’t be heard over the impromptu Fight club for the public access pc’s.) 

Southfield has its own brand of craz……unique-ness. 

When I’m asked to describe the nature of Southfield the only reasonable explanation I come up with is this: “You know when someone says they’re on a knife’s edge, or hanging on by fingertip over an abyss of some sort? Well Southfield is the place between the edge and the abyss. That place that stands between the sharpened edge of the knife and a really nasty paper cut. Which in a word means this place is just crazy.” 
Then the person would ask me how I could say something like that and generally be all in a state of ‘aghastliness’. (Which according to another patron can be relieved with Eno.) 

I would shrug and say: “Let me tell you a story:”

About two months ago a colleague came to my desk and asked for help. A simple enough request and since my spider-sense doesn’t usually kick in unless the person asking for help has
a) not bathed for a year, 
b) smells like a wine and vomit,
c) crapped themselves and/or 
d)hands me a sticky book, 
I figured this was just a typical ‘fix the computer’ query. 

What I faced when we stepped up to the desk was a woman looking very concerned and totally not tripping the spidey sense pre-requisites. I approached with the amiable air of someone wanting to help, and got something plonked in my lap. My colleagues then disappeared without actually disappearing.( They just got real busy, real fast. ) It didn’t really register because I was now fully engaged in the something

The Something
The dear lady was looking for a man; a very specific man and she needed help so desperately. Being the good librarian I sadly am (as opposed to a bad-boy librarian with coiffed hair and an awesome hobby like playing the saxophone), I sauntered over to a computer and fired up google and stood in the computer geeks starter’s position (fingers ready over asdf and jkl;)
The man in question was an advocate she was trying to track down for personal reasons. The giant neon sign that usually goes off when someone says ‘personal reasons’ on that particular day had blown a circuit or the bulbs had popped because I then asked for his name and typed it into the almighty G. (Google) I came up with a couple of hits but needed more information, which meant that I was wading into the deep end of the pool of ‘personal reasons’ with nothing but a pair of trunks, flimsy plastic water wings and the uncomfortable realization that I couldn’t swim. 
She ventured some more information:

 A certain Mr S, a family member, was a lawyer that specialised in Trusts and Policies, and about a couple of months ago he had absconded with about R3 million. (From the murky depths I saw a fin; I hoped it was a dolphin.) Mr S. had not only absconded with his clients’ monies but also her money after she had invested in his practice to the tune of a million bucks. He had also stolen some monies from her as well. She had come to the library, to me, in the hopes that we could get information in case he started up a practice in another part of the country. 

The silence that following her plea was broken by my steadfast clicking of the mouse and frantic typing and for some reason the theme to Jaws. After I had switched the stupid radio off, I returned to the typing, and to my dread and horror, the lady started to cry. (Sharp teeth glinted off the noon day sun, and one water wing went pop) I panicked.

So mesmerized by the possibility that I could track down the scallywag I was battered by the sight of tears. So I made a break for it. (I was still helping her but I could help her from the proximity of the office, on the phone, far away.) I looked at my boss, who loves to handle crying patrons cause then she can indulge in her Mother-of-all fantasy, and I made a call to a friend. I admit that my conversation to him contained words like ‘far-fetched’, possibly ‘crazy’ definitely “I can’t believe this place’ was uttered once, but in the end I got some information that would allow this weeping patron to find the nefarious rapscallion. When I went back to the desk I caught the words “…his trying to kill me.” 

The words got me in mid step, like a demented game of red light/green light without the fun, or a safe word. I waved the woefully inadequate piece of paper in front me like a shield. The hastily scribbled numbers now my only salvation. My boss looked at me, a bemused expression dancing across her face, or it could’ve been the universal nya-nya-nya- nyaaa face. I can never tell. I informed The Lady in Question that she could call the numbers on the scrap of paper (the law society) and she could basically lay a charge against him (or the lawyer equivalent) and the law society would basically smite him from up high if he decided to practice again. 

The elephant in the room put up its hand and said: ‘Hey, remember me.” 
I wasn’t listening at all, but the lady obviously possessed of some advanced pachyderm sensing ability decided to continue on from the ‘his trying to kill me’ with a ‘ ever since his brother disappeared my Husband has been very cold towards me. I think he is poisoning me’ . “Really I should be dead now.” she said earnestly, her face positively glowing with health and vigor. 

There is a sound of a persons brain going from ‘no, seriously?!’ to ‘WTF’ so fast that it literally jams the neurons and spasms your medulla oblongata, the seat of your language controls. 
“Hubba –wha”, I ventured. 
"No really," she says, "I was literally at death’s door 2 days ago. I should in fact be in hospital" 
She looked at me expectantly.  
"Paper”, I said. 
“Phone Number” I said. 
“Help.”
  My boss sidled behind me, asking quietly as the Lady scrutinized the paper: “This is sounding very weird. You sure she’s not just crazy.” 
I almost swallowed my tongue as the words flashed inside my brain, and burnt themselves on the inside of my skull: YOU THINK!!? 

She left soon after, quietly and totally not dropping dead from poisoning. At all. 

The emotional detritus she left in her wake made Jack and Roses’ (Titanic-The Movie) little issues seem pretty plain, simply because that interaction made us doubt our own sanity. (Like believing two people couldn’t fit on that piece of wood. Oh please!!) 

Was she relieved of a million rand but looking like someone who clearly did not have a million rand to spend? 
Was her husband trying to kill her, even though she looked quite healthy, and there was no corroboration from the young lady with her who she claimed was her daughter?
And indeed the most pertinent question of all: Did a certain Mr S disappear with all his clients’ money? 

I had been devoured by the Shark of doubt, felled by its razor teeth into questioning the fabric of my reality. Belief or disbelief: subscribing to either would mean that I had fell for the ‘weirdness’ that was Southfield. One thing I had come to recognize about this place is that living between the knife’s edge and the abyss, warps reality just a little till you can see the cracks in people’s lives. (This helps if they’re finicky readers.)
But perhaps the greater realization is that this place of brick and mortar that is called Library is also just a construct of a warped reality. 

Why, you may ask? 

Well under any other circumstances a room with books in it could just be a store room, a shop, a garbage dump. We (me and you) give it definition, shape and purpose. Which is why libraries ‘take the shape’ of their neighborhoods. So I didn’t feel too bad that this woman had so skewed my bullshit radar, but this whole story still bothered me. 

Was it true, was it a complete work of fiction? 

When the answer came, it wasn’t what I expected, as most answers to life’s more difficult problems often are. My boss called me over to the pc, and pointed to the screen. A web page that had not loaded displayed a couple of lines from an archived database. The database contained old newspaper articles. I read it twice.
 I could feel the words starting to bubble up as my poor medulla oblongata ached. 

The article said: 
Missing: police are looking for Mr S, who disappeared on his way to work on 29 March. He is a self-employed advocate in Cape Town. He travelled with a taxi to the Bellville train station and took a train to Cape Town. He was last ­seen wearing a black suit, white shirt and a tie. His eyes are brown, but he wears sunglasses most of the time. His hair is short and spiky. He has previously disappeared and was found in Graaff-Water in a cave after two days. Anyone with information that can lead to the whereabouts of Mr S, can contact the S A police. 

My boss looked at me and burst into belly shaking laughter. 

"Hubba-wha?" I said dejectedly, and went to go seek solace in my tea break.

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