Shelved in Shepshed 

By Val Culley


Sallie knew it was going to be ‘one of those days’ before the library had even opened to customers that cold Thursday afternoon.

She was kneeling in the entrance porch, emptying the returned books customers had posted into the drop box, when she became aware of a large woman standing over her. “Can you look a book up for me on your computer system? I can’t see it on the shelves,” the woman asked.

Sallie had never been a big fan of the concept of the Smart Library, which was introduced soon after she started work at Shepshed Library. It had taken her a while to find another job after being made redundant from the library she had worked at previously. She had then encouraged her former colleague, Jo, to apply for a job at Shepshed Library as well.  

Sallie and Jo had both now got used to the customers, with their little quirks, such as Mr Austin, who used the computers but never took a book out, who would come up and mutter things to them. They would smile and nod but feel uneasy, knowing neither what he had said nor what they were smiling about.

"Sallie and Jo had both now got used to the
customers, with their little quirks"
Then they were told that their hours and pay, along with those of their colleagues, were to be cut by the local authority that employed them, as a result of the introduction of the Smart Library.

Sallie didn’t like the thought of customers letting themselves into the library when there were no staff present and doing whatever they liked, having simply signed a vague agreement  to ‘look after the library,’ but she had no choice other than to go along with it.

She occasionally had clashes with Smart customers, who pounced on her as soon as she arrived and vented their frustration at her, because they had been unable to work the computer, or print documents, with no staff present. When she pointed out they had signed up to use the library without staff assistance, they would unleash a tirade of abuse at her.

On this occasion, she stood up, in as dignified manner as possible, but found she was still at a disadvantage, looking up at the tall woman, who had long, untidy grey hair and large glasses.

“We’re not actually open yet,” Sallie pointed out.

The woman gestured impatiently. “I’m sorry! All I’m asking is for you to do your job! But I’m not surprised by your attitude really, because, can I just say, I have never felt any warmth in this library.”

“That’s strange because I just found a note on the counter from a customer complaining the library was too hot while she was using it in Smart this morning.”

“I didn’t mean that! I meant that the staff here are not at all friendly.”

“None of them?”

“Yes, none of them. I’ve never felt any warmth from any of the staff.”

Sallie looked at her carefully. She was sure she had never seen the woman before. “Do you perhaps only use the library when there are no staff present?”

“Oh, for goodness sake. You’re useless. I’m wasting my time talking to you. I shall complain to the manager.” She marched to the doors, which opened automatically to let her out.

"The usual wave of people approached the
desk, clutching their phones"
After the library had opened to all the customers at two pm, the usual wave of people approached the desk, clutching their phones, which were all showing labels that needed to be printed urgently. Most of them weren’t library members, but they couldn’t join because they had no ID with them, and wouldn’t be able to print anyway, because they weren’t carrying any money. Sallie and Jo were kept busy at the counter dealing with them, and had no time to discharge the contents of the drop box.

They made a good team. Jo was petite with short dark hair and an elfin face and was very kind, while Sallie was taller and more generously built, with blonde hair and blue eyes and the ability to be firm but fair with customers. The third girl on duty, Lauren, a young, library assistant with long, glossy, brown hair, was doing her best to try to shelve the mountain of books in danger of falling off the returns trolley, flicking her hair out of the way constantly.

Sallie noticed Paula was waiting in the queue. Paula was a Reading for Community Health volunteer, who had started to use the meeting room at the library to help adults with literacy problems. The staff had agreed to keep an eye on her when she was in the meeting room with a client and she could call on them for assistance if she had any problems.

Sallie unlocked the door of the meeting room for her and propped it open with a door stop so they would be able to see Paula when they were shelving non-fiction returns. She noticed that Paula, whose long, mousey hair was scraped back into a pony tail, looked thinner than ever and her eyes were red rimmed as though she had been crying.

“Are you okay, Paula?”

“Yeah, I’m all right, thanks,” she replied listlessly

An old man barred Sallie’s way as she attempted to walk back to the counter. “Do you have a book called ‘The Soldiers of Shepshed’?”

“Yes, it’s with the local history books along here,” Sallie said

But when she searched the shelf where it was kept, she couldn’t find it. Worryingly, the book appeared to be missing. There were only two copies of ‘The Soldiers of Shepshed’ in the entire county. Sallie had made the Shepshed copy available as Reference only, so that it couldn’t be taken out of the library. It seemed to have disappeared and she was concerned someone might have stolen it. A customer had told her the book was now out of print and there was only one copy left on Amazon, for which the seller was charging £150.

"But when she searched the shelf where it
was kept, she couldn't find it"
As the afternoon wore on, the three girls were all run off their feet. At one point, while Sallie was shelving fiction, she noticed a smartly-dressed young man bending down and studying the Mary Balogh novels. She was just about to ask if she could help him, when an old man appeared in front of her and asked, “What’s this Smart thingamajig?”

Sallie sighed. “Do you mean the Smart Library?”

“I don’t know. I just want to be able to get in.”

“Get in where?”

“The library.”

“You’re in it now.”

“I know that, but this morning there were people inside when I went past and when I tried to get in, I couldn’t.”

“Have you joined the Smart Library.”

“Yes, of course.”

Sallie took the man’s card and went to the desk and after checking on the computer found he wasn’t yet registered as Smart.

“Can I become Smart?” he asked.

Sallie was just about to say that she thought it highly unlikely, when a shrill scream came from non-fiction. Then Lauren ran to the counter looking terrified. ‘It’s Paula! She’s dead!”

Sallie and Jo raced to the meeting room where they found Paula, slumped lifelessly in her chair with red marks on her neck.

The next hour seemed to go by in a blur. They closed the door of the meeting room, called the police, and rang their supervisor. Two uniformed officers arrived and said it looked as if Paula had been strangled. There was no murder weapon in the meeting room, but they could see that a length of cord had been cut from one of the window blinds.

The first detective to arrive was taken to the meeting room by Sallie to join his uniformed colleagues. He said: “I expect your prints will be all over everything by now. Why haven’t you sent all the customers home and closed for the day?”

"Two uniformed officers arrived and said it
looked as if Paula had been strangled"
“I’ve read enough crime fiction to know not to touch anything, and I didn’t ask anyone to leave because I thought you might want to interview them. We closed the door of the meeting room so no one could go in, and put the front door on exit only.”

Lauren was still very shocked, so Jo made her a cup of tea. They all sat in the office together and thought back about the events of that afternoon.

Sallie remembered opening the door of the meeting room to admit poor Paula. Jo remembered seeing Paula’s client arrive. She said he was tall and looked as though he was dressed for going skiing and was wearing a hat and had a scarf over his face. He had walked towards the counter purposefully, but then suddenly turned right and gone straight to the meeting room. None of them had seen the client come out afterwards.

Later, an older detective arrived to take over, and said Sallie could open the front door again. He put one of the uniformed men on the door and asked him to take the names of customers as they left and he sent the other uniformed officer and the patronising, young detective away to make further enquiries.

Sallie showed him the crime scene and explained what Paula was doing in the meeting room. The detective was tall and thin, with grey hair, and Sallie thought he had an intelligent face. She relayed her version of events to him, and then he spoke to Jo and Lauren in turn.

When the pathologist arrived, the detective took him into meeting room and they viewed the body behind closed doors.

Later, Sallie and Jo were both behind the counter when they saw Paula’s client come back in and walk purposefully towards them. They both gasped with excitement, but he just asked calmly if he had left his bag next to the kiosk. Jo recovered quickly and told him a bag had been handed in. She asked him to describe his bag and Sallie offered to fetch it from lost property.

But on her way, she went to the meeting room and knocked on the door. She told the detective the client had returned. He took the client into the kitchen to speak to him, but after taking down his contact details and statement allowed him to leave the library with his bag.

"Sallie noticed Lauren, who had somehow
managed to change into a little black dress"
While Sallie was trying to deal with the growing mountain of shelving, the detective came to tell her his officers had been to Paula’s home and spoken to her neighbours. They had told the police she was unhappy because her husband had left her for another woman and that he wanted to sell the house immediately because he was desperate for money. They said Paula had been refusing to cooperate.

A wedding picture of Paula and her husband had been in the lounge and the officers had texted him an image of it, which he showed to Sallie. “But her husband’s been in the library this afternoon! I saw him earlier, rummaging about among my Mary Baloghs!” Sallie exclaimed.

The detective ordered the uniformed officer to search the area around the Mary Balogh novels. To Sallie’s horror the cop heaved piles of books off the shelves enthusiastically. Then he brought ‘Soldiers of Shepshed’ to Sallie, which he had found at the back of the shelf, saying: “I’m no librarian, but this don’t look like romance to me.”

The uniformed officer then found a piece of blind cord and the detective took it into the meeting room to compare it with the cord on the window blind.

On her way to the shelves again, Sallie noticed Lauren, who had somehow managed to change into a little black dress with a side slit, was dancing a tango with the uniformed cop near the audio books. This shift is becoming more and more bizarre, she thought.

The nice detective came to thank Sallie for all her help. He said: “We’ll get that poor girl’s murderer bang to rights. It’s a classic domestic. There’s no one else in the frame, so we’ll soon have him in custody. I hope you don’t mind me saying this, and I’m sure people must have said it to you many times before, but you have the most beautiful, blue eyes. When you’ve finished work, would you be kind enough to join me for a drink so I can go over my notes with you to make sure I haven’t missed anything.”

“But I thought it was an open and shut case,” Sallie said.

“Well, it’s more a case of murder by the book,” he said, looking into her eyes. He held his hand out to her and she found herself reaching out to him as well, but then there was a loud thud…

Sallie woke with a start and saw she had dropped her book on the floor. She had fallen asleep while reading in front of the fire. Her black cat was curled up on the sofa next to her and there was a half empty glass of wine on the coffee table. “Oh dear, I must have dreamt the whole thing,’ she said, stroking the cat, who purred contentedly. 

“Do you think it’s time I retired from the library, Desdemona?”



Appetite for Life

(Or, how a good Italian meal can mend a broken heart.)

By Val Culley

We were walking down a medieval, cobbled street that was crammed with so many fascinating shops you didn’t know which way to look next. Helen and Alexa ran from side to side with shrieks of delight every time they saw a boutique featuring clothes by designers whose names they recognised.

My daughter-in-law, Helen, is a size 8 and my daughter, Alexa, a size 10. As long as they forgot about the price tags, all the clothes in the windows were potential purchases for them. But I couldn’t share their excitement as I was realistic enough to accept that none of the garments on display would be going home in my suitcase.

On the other hand, I couldn’t help noticing every food shop we passed. There were some spectacular window displays of bread, cheeses, hams and local specialities such as oddly-shaped, stuffed pasta and enormous cakes. It all looked hearty and substantial and somehow comforting. This was surprising because I hadn’t been eating much recently. In fact, that morning in the hotel had been the first time I had eaten any breakfast for ages. The fresh bread roll with ham and cheese and the orange juice had actually tempted my appetite.

This girlie holiday in Italy had been Helen’s and Alexa’s idea to try to cheer me up. And although I had been reluctant to come at first, I had to admit that it seemed to be working. For a start, I was actually getting up, showering and dressing every day, which I hadn’t been doing at home when left to my own devices.

I had not been going about my day with any purpose ever since the night I had turned my car into the drive of my house and seen Steve loading boxes of his possessions and suitcases full of his clothes into his car.

“It’s not going to be permanent, I just need some space. Don’t worry, I’m not leaving you,” he had said and then he’d gone before I could take in exactly what was happening.

He hadn’t given me chance to tell him that I had been made redundant from my job that day. When I had received the news at work that my job was going to be axed it had felt like the end of the world. But after he had driven off leaving me standing alone in the dark and the rain in our driveway, I had started to really understand what the end of the world felt like.

Of course, Steve hadn’t been telling the truth. He had met someone else. That was why he left me and needless to say he didn’t come back. I wondered for a while afterwards why he had lied to me. Was it because he was just trying to let me down gently after 25 years of marriage? Or, was it because he couldn’t bring himself to own up to the fact that he had been having an affair with another woman for ages?

I eventually found out that all the while I had been going through hell at work, when my life was being made uncomfortable but I daren’t complain to anyone because I was scared I might lose my job, he had been seeing someone else. It was a cruel irony that two of the most important things in my life had been taken away from me on the same day.

My daughter, Alexa, my son, Gavin, and his wife, Helen, had been the only people that I had left in the world and they had somehow kept me going. I had tried to put on a brave face for their sakes, to make them think I was coping, but inside I had felt empty and without any hope for the future.

As I stood outside one of the shops while the girls looked round inside I caught sight of my reflection in the window.

It was shapeless and indistinct, almost as though I didn’t really exist any more. All this bright, vibrant life was going on in the street around me and it was as though I wasn’t really there any more.

Alexa came out of the shop and looked at me anxiously. “Do you want to stop for a drink, Mum?” she asked.

We went to sit at a table outside a bar in a beautiful old square and had a glass of wine. While Alexa went to the toilet, Helen put her small, thin hand over mine and said: “For what it’s worth, I think you’ve been incredibly brave. I wouldn’t say this in front of Alexa because she’s bound to want to be loyal to her Dad, but he’s been an idiot. Gavin has said to me more than once that he doesn’t think his Dad will ever find anyone as good as you and that he will regret leaving you one day.”

A few days ago her kind words would have moved me to tears and I knew from experience that once I let them come they were difficult to stop, so I just took a big gulp of wine and started cramming crisps and pretzels into my mouth.

When Alexa came back to the table, Helen said; “Why don’t we have lunch here? They seem to do nice salads.”

But Alexa said: “No, Mum wants to go to see that old chapel before it closes, it’s only just round the corner.”

Soon we were in the pretty, pink and white marble Chiavenasca Chapel looking at the tomb of Isabella Chiavenasca, a 15th century, female Italian poet. I had read about her life in a book I had at home and had mentioned to Alexa that I would like to see the chapel during our trip.

Isabella had been beautiful, rich and talented but had died in childbirth while still a young woman, leaving her devoted husband, Francesco, alone and distraught.

Life had come to an abrupt end for her one day and it hadn’t just been a tragedy for her family but also for the world, which had been denied any more of her wonderful poetry.

“It just shows, you can seem to have the lot and yet still not be able to prevent something like that happening. No one can really know what the future holds for them,” Helen said quietly as she looked at the tomb.

“But childbirth is a lot safer for women these days,” I said quickly, anxious not to put her and Gavin off the idea.

I looked at the pale, lifeless stone figure of Isabella draped across the top of the tomb. Her cheeks, carved out of white marble were rounded and youthful, her hair a riot of curls framing her beautiful, oval shaped face.

“She could have gone on to be the most talented poet of the Renaissance but she died before she had the chance to fulfil her early promise,” I read to the girls from the little travel guide about the area that I was carrying in my handbag.

“Her husband never got over her death and because he was so wealthy he was able to have this beautiful chapel built to house her tomb so that he could visit her every day.”

When we came out into the bright sunshine again I saw that there was a small restaurant opposite the chapel, which was advertising that it served local specialities, so we went over to give it a try.

I chose a pasta dish that I had read about in my travel guide. It was a dish that the city was famous for and it more than lived up to my expectations, taking me only minutes to devour. I followed it with a succulent dish of meat braised in wine served with polenta.

The meat was cooked to perfection and melted in the mouth and again my meal took only a short time to disappear, helped by a few more glasses of the delicious local white wine. Amazingly I found that I could taste and enjoy food again.

I ate better than I had done in ages and when I had finished I sat back in my seat feeling full and contented. Although the restaurant had looked small from the outside I saw that there were doors at one end of the room leading out to a large terrace. While the girls finished their meals, I went outside for some fresh air and to have a moment to myself.

It was like stepping into another world after the interior of the restaurant. The sun was shining, the birds were singing and I was surrounded by pretty, flowering plants and vines. Although it was only early in March you could tell Spring was well on its way in Italy.

I looked out at the beautiful medieval city spread out in front of me with the backdrop of green hills and mountains in the distance. It was such a clear day that you could even see the local airport in the distance with the planes on the runway.

I thought back to Helen’s words about Isabella having everything she could wish for and her whole life in front of her when she suddenly died. I realised that what she had said applied to me too. I had everything I really needed, now I thought about it, and I still had plenty of years of life in front of me. I realised that now, with Steve out of my life, I could go anywhere and do anything, whenever I felt like it. I could get another job, perhaps one that would make me happier than I was before and I could travel, which I had always wanted to do.

I suddenly felt determined not to waste another second thinking about my ex-husband.

At the other end of the terrace, a gardener was pruning the plants. He had thick dark, curly hair and a body like Michelangelo’s David, although it was covered up by jeans and a tee-shirt.

He turned round and when he caught sight of me, he smiled and gave me a friendly wink.


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