Tuesday, January 01, 2008

A Noble Calling

At the check-out desk a female assistant scolds her helper. A pale-faced girl, aged about ten, is rubbing the book- spines back and forth across a de-magnetizing plate.

'No, no, you only have to pass it over once!' The woman has a French accent.

I smile as the girl raises her eyes. 'So enthusiastic! She'll make an excellent librarian some day'

'Huh! I hope she has a better future than this!'

I'm surprised and say, half joking, 'What? Providing the world's knowledge to the public? What nobler calling could there be?'

The woman relents a little and shrugs. 'Well, yes, the job has it's good points. ' Small- boned and efficient, she reminds me of a down-trodden version of Stephane Audran. 'I like to talk to the customers about their choices.' She glances at my pile of books, the top one a collection of short stories called 'Paris Noir'.

'I've been to Paris a few times, and the stories all have a Paris setting,' I explain.

'The woman looks rueful. 'Ah, yes, I lived there seven years, until this July.'

I stepped back in mock horror. 'What? How can you bear to have left?'

Another shrug and a resigned frown. 'Pfft! I was made redundant!' She turned to the girl. 'She prefers the school here, though. The change was the right way round - it would have been hard the other way. In France the students' bags are so heavy with homework they all have back problems. Here, she does nothing all day!' The girl is nodding happily.

My husband brings a book and we have a discussion about Camberwell, where the woman tells me she lives and where my husband was born. The advantage of growing up there, I explain to her, is that it made Roy forever indifferent to his surroundings, no matter how drab.

With my checked-out books the girl hands over a hand-drawn book-mark, illustrated with a Christmas tree and, on the back, 'Happy New Year from Charing X Library.'

'How lovely! Thank you so much!'

'Mm- it's what she does', the woman says half-apologetically, looking pleased despite herself.

As I go I wish her Happy New Year and hope she soon finds somewhere more scenic to live.

'What, with the price of property in London? You are joking! '

Roy reminds me that Camberwell these days is pretty pricey. One of my closest friends, also a rather waspish Frenchwoman, lives there and could make a killing if she sold her home, a council flat in a terrace of Edwardian town houses. In fact, she likes the raffish atmosphere of the area.

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