Alice opened her eyes to a grey dawn, wondering what day it was. Yesterday the dustmen had been, so that was Tuesday. Ah, Wednesday – early closing at the Library, so she had better get washed and dressed. The remaining hand on the clock pointed to the figure 8, so it was not 9 o’clock yet. (Alice would not replace the old clock because she liked its friendly tick.) She began to hurry, so as to be at the Library when the doors opened. She did not want to miss her favourite cakes.
Hurrying round the corner of Churchgate, she saw the backs of people entering the big glass doors. She followed some of them into the little cafe.
“Good morning, Clara. Alright then?”
Clara was not the greatest conversationalist.
“Hi, hi, hi!”, beamed Harry. He always seemed cheerful; at least his voice was cheery and his mouth smiled. But his eyes did not.
Roger joined them, muttering angrily. He was upset that he had not been allowed to bring his dog in. Well, you could not expect a dog to obey the Library’s quiet rule, could you, thought Alice.
Sipping her hot tea, Alice turned her attention to the delicious cakes on her plate. She always had two or three, then she would not need to eat at home. They were cheaper than you could buy in town too. The café was cosy and warm and she did not have to worry about the cost of the heating.
Eunice was a new member of the group and liked to tell people what to do.
“I do hope you’re all going to choose some books, when you’ve finished taking advantage of the Library’s facilities”, she said tartly.
“Do you mean the loo?,” asked Alice. “I don’t need to go yet, thanks.”
Eunice rolled her eyes to heaven in exasperation.
“No, no Alice! I mean the subsidised drinks and cakes. These are provided for the benefit of book borrowers. Have you noticed, there are quite a lot of books here?”, she said sarcastically.
“My eyes aren’t very good, so I can’t see to read much”, said Pat, another regular.
“Well, why are you here then?”, Eunice demanded.
Pat went red and was too embarrassed to reply. She was not going to admit that coming to the Library was the only opportunity she had of a friendly chat.
Harry changed the subject.
“What’s ‘appened to Pete, anybody know? ‘Aven’t seen ‘im for a bit.”
No-one else had seen him recently. Alice recalled that Pete had told her he was going to try to get a job, to take his mind off things. If he had started work it seemed strange that he had not come to say goodbye to everyone. He had said that, after the accident, Library visits were the only thing that had kept him sane. Alice wondered just how anyone could carry on, after losing their wife and child. At least if you did not have any family, like Alice, you did not have to grieve over them.
It was always too soon for Alice when it was time to go home. She gratefully accepted the two cakes which the kind waitress gave her, “to stop them going stale’. Back on the cold lonely street, Alice wondered what she was going to do till bedtime, with only the tick of the ailing clock to keep her company. Well, she had a simple choice: watch television; or not watch television.
As she crossed into Bridgegate, she remembered who lived there. A couple of times she had walked home this far with Pete, who had pointed out the house where he rented the top flat. On an impulse, Alice decided to ring his bell to see if he was in. If he was ill perhaps she could get some shopping for him. If he did not want to be bothered, he need not answer.
Before Alice got to the front door, a vehicle drove up at high speed. Turning, she saw it was an ambulance. Then a woman rushed out of the house and showed the two paramedics in. Alice was unsure what to do and hid behind an overhanging tree. Before she could decide whether or not to ring Pete’s bell, the front door opened again. The ambulance man and woman were carrying someone on a stretcher. The face was not covered, so he or she was not dead. As they passed her she saw that it was Pete.
A few days later at the Library the talk was all about Pete: how he had finally decided he could not carry on, but had ended up in hospital.
“It was a stupid thing to do”, Pete said, “and solved nothing. I’m ashamed of wasting the medical staff’s time. But I just couldn’t stop thinking about my darling girls and hating myself for being alive. The emptiness hurts so much.”
“But they wouldn’t want you to do what you did Pete! I know it’s not the same, but you’ve got friends – people who care about you”.
“Yes Alice; I was so touched when I came round and saw you. And you came every day. It was good to see you too Harry, Pat and Clara. Thank you.”
“I’m sorry, I was away last week, so I couldn’t visit you.” Eunice sounded a bit embarrassed. “But I’ve been thinking. Why do we just meet at the Library? We could go to the cinema, for a meal, or a drive when the weather’s nice.” Seeing some doubtful faces, she continued. “I know you don’t all drive, but my car can take four, and what about you Pete?”
Taken by surprise, he replied cautiously: “Oh. I haven’t driven for months. But yes, I could take three, easily.”
“We could each contribute a small amount towards the petrol”, continued Eunice, in her element now. “Cinema tickets in the afternoon, especially for senior citizens and those on benefits, are quite cheap. I know some nice little cafes where you can get a good, reasonably-priced meal. What would you like to do first?”
Roger said he could not go anywhere because he had no smart clothes.
“Roger, that needn’t be a problem”, said Pat. “There are several charity shops in town where you can find clothes as good as new, very cheaply.” Roger looked as though he was going to protest, so she continued: “Everybody’s doing it now – even well-to-do people.” Roger grudgingly agreed to a shopping expedition and Alice was amazed that quiet, grumpy Pat had taken this initiative to help him.
After more excited chatter, it was decided to go for a meal at a small bistro in Newark the following week. (“What’s a ‘beestro’?”, wondered Alice, but did not like to ask.) There they could continue the discussion of what they wanted to do and how best to make it work. In the meantime, Eunice would see if there were any films coming up which might appeal to the group. There seemed to be endless possibilities.
As Alice and Pete walked home that afternoon, they agreed that when they had started going to the Library they had never expected to make so many good friends there, and that a new world of socialising and shared interests would open up.
That evening, as she sat watching the light through the window slowly fade, Alice did not mind being alone. She had the happy prospect of meeting her friends again tomorrow, as well as looking forward to enjoying all their new plans. She smiled contentedly to herself, while the old clock tick-tocked merrily on.