I walked the usual route taken by Garbutt and Derek so many times before, only this journey was in the early black hours of the morning. No one around, no traffic, and no sound. I walked up the last street to John Menzies and looked for the basement windows at pavement level around the corner from the main entrance. With my hand wrapped tightly inside a scarf, I bent down and punched the glass hard and heard it tinkle on the warehouse floor inside. After punching the remaining shards jagging out from the frame, I climbed through the building feet first, my hands hanging me up, and looked below into darkness to estimate how far down the floor was and took a gamble. It half paid off, my feet slapping the floor a bit later than I expected and knocking me back against a tall block of furniture.
I took the torch from my coat pocket and scanned the room. As expected, it was full of tall bookshelves. Garbutt had been down here before, checking on a mislaid edition of some dictionary or other and I remembered its location. I found a chair by a table not far from the entrance and brought it near the broken window in preparation for my quick escape. Then I sat down upon it and considered what I was about to do.
Garbutt read part of a book in this very building that said Julius Caesar destroyed the Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt unintentionally. Thousands of manuscripts lost to the world forever. Even though there were no doubt copies of all the books lined up on shelves at Menzies, I couldn’t help but feel like a philistine arsonist because what I was going to do would be deliberate. I cursed myself once for spilling coffee on the pages of a book I’d been reading in bed, yet here I was about to destroy thousands in one conflagration. But I reminded myself the motive was good. It was a warehouse of drudgery, a place of employment in which Garbutt had wasted five years binding books, made more unbearable because of his temptation to read them. But he was forcefully starved, dressing them in plastic sleeves which they wore like disposable aprons.
And Alexandria, with its ancient papyruses and archaic maps, shared no comparison. To work here was not conducive to learning, and this sabotage will also ensure Garbutt will never return here should he ever consider it.
I took the box of matches from my pocket and considered the best place to start the fire. At the bottom of a bookshelf, naturally, but which one? And more importantly, which book? I couldn’t start at Orwell: I’ve had too much enjoyment. Henry Miller and his prose poetry? No. Joyce? Impossible. Hemmingway? Boastful, but still no. Pope, out of the question. O’Casey, Wilde, Shaw, Becket, Yeats? No, no one Irish. Then the history books. Rome, Greece, Prehistory, science, philosophy. I never realised how so much information could be so silent. It would be better to consider what wasn’t worth keeping.
Then one book caught my eye even before I’d walked the end of the long shelf.
Whatever anyone might disbelieve throughout its pages, it was still beautifully written. I knew that there were different versions covering more than a thousand years, but it was only variations in the same deception. Sam would have been proud of me.
I lifted it out and placed it at the bottom of the shelf. I opened it and set it up like a small tent and ignited the pages. They submitted easily to the first flames, brightening the darkness so well I didn’t need my torch anymore. But the density of the books jammed tightly together above it resisted the upward daggers of fire. Then one began to smoke in surrender, the plumes thickening gradually, until that too, ignited into a yellow flame.
When I felt the heat against my legs, I knew it would feed itself without further encouragement. I pulled myself up and out of the window into the darkness of the morning once more. The smoke set off no sprinklers on the ceiling, either as a result of faulty electrical maintenance or because no one would believe anyone would hate books so much they’d risk imprisonment by destroying them. But it wasn’t the books I was burning; it was this warehouse that blanked them into figures on a spreadsheet.
As I was returning past the main entrance, I looked up to register a final look at a building I hoped to see no more of in the future but noticed a row of windows brightened by light. It was the floor Garbutt had worked on. I knew there was no security personnel around, and could only guess that Bensing had come in early to work. I knew the fire would take a while to reach the top, but I did not want to be responsible for killing an innocent man. I ran to the entrance door to see if it was open, half hoping it wasn’t so that I could rest easier with my conscience, but when I grabbed the handle and pulled, it swung open. I ran up the stairs, reached the top breathlessly, and entered the floor to see all of them sitting on their chairs by their tables, binding books.
There was no Dorset the dead man or Garbutt the rich one. But Derek was there, next to his Isobel, with Red Marrion next to her and sorrowful Julie, who didn’t even notice me, too absorbed in her own thoughts of dead love. Bensing’s head was downwards at the desk in his small secluded office, the same tie clumsily fastened in the same way around the same neck.
I looked at the other table and saw Bessie the Snitch, Beth, Mary, and Hazel with her familiar soft fluffy slippers under the table, home sweet home away from home. Then Marcie, who looked directly at me, the only one who seemed to notice my abrupt entrance. I walked over to her.
‘What are you doing here?’ I asked.
‘What does it look like?’ she asked in return, ‘Who are you?’
‘Do you know what time it is?’
‘We’re working shifts.’ she said.
I looked back at Bensing’s office and saw him approach the door, open it, and stick his head out, the way he always used to do.
‘Get these people out.’ I told him, ‘There’s a fire in the basement.’
‘Who are you?’ he asked, his voice too timid to carry any authority.
‘It doesn’t matter who I am.’ I said, ‘Just leave the building.’
He instinctively looked towards Marcie who could give him no help. It seemed stupidly sensible, two supervisors wanting to establish the authority of someone who possibly might be pulling rank but whose unfamiliarity allowed them to resist. I ignored them and walked over to Derek and Isobel.
‘All of you need to leave. There’s a fire downstairs.’
‘Who the fuck are you?’ asked Derek, with his usual bravado.
‘It doesn’t matter who I am. Get the fuck out.’
That was the point where I sounded mad. Someone they’d never seen before enters a building in the early hours and tells them they will die if they don’t get out because of a fire they can neither feel nor see. I stood before them as they peered over their desks, not moving anything other than their fingers still binding the covers of books stacked high on their work desks. I became desperate and knew it was better to shock them to reaction than persuade.
Bessie seemed suitable, an interfering old hag who irritated all those around her. I walked over to her table and looked down at her gaunt face.
’Oi, Bessie. Get your arse out now. Move it.’
She, just like the others, didn’t move. I slapped her hard in the face, knocking her spectacles from her face, the gasps of shock from her colleagues following on. I knew the approaching heavy steps behind belonged to Marcie, no fear evident by the pace of her walk. I turned about-face and lunged into another assault, punching frantically at her obese frame, feeling her soft body cushion my blows yet sensing the pain she must have felt. She fell backward onto the floor holding her stomach, her dress grotesquely high over her open dough-like thighs like an overweight mother about to give birth.
I knew who would approach next and tried to reason with him before he reached me.
‘Derek, I know you hate this place. Do you and Isabella really want to die here together? Get out while there’s still time.’
When he remained still, fists clenched before me, I knew I’d got through to him. He went over and grabbed Isabella’s hand and walked quickly towards the door. The rest followed, with Bessie, Mary, and Hazel helping Marcie off the floor and towards the exit. But as the door opened, I saw a dense cloud of dark grey smoke rising and rolling along the ceiling of the staircase and tumbling in above our heads.
We were on the sixth floor, with each flight of stairs below it numbering ten steps or nine. However many it was, there was enough to be certain it was a long way down to the bottom where the situation would be a lot worse.