I sometimes drop into Broomhouse public library whenever I have an hour or two spare between shifts. You are unlikely to surprise anybody reading inside this library, and the facility seems to offer merely a variation upon the blandness of home for the community’s mothers and pensioners. The whole building is almost a single tank, with a spine of store cupboards and box offices at its rear. If the librarian ever opened the windows, the breeze would pour virtually without interruption from the west windows to the east, since the library’s few bookshelves line the walls. There are plastic-topped tables and foam sofas which appear to have been fished from the skip adjoining a GP’s waiting room during a refurbishment. Ancient gentlemen in anoraks sit stiffly nodding and drowsing before newspapers with huge barcodes printed across them.
The library is visited every afternoon by a glossy black cat. It always prances in looking very splendid, as if to announce “I’m here! The celebrations can begin now!” Any children in the library surround the cat and dote over it, but it will not be distracted from its rounds. It visits each person in the library in turn, just as a hospital doctor comes to see that every patient’s bowels have moved for the day. After it has been sufficiently stroked and admired, it instantly forgets about you and moves on to the next person.
One afternoon the cat bit somebody and soon a tide of complaints had reached the librarian’s desk. I did not give much credence to these stories, assuming that the victims must be extravagantly incompetent around cats. Yet I had an opportunity to take up the question of the cat’s conduct with the librarian Hilda when we found ourselves smoking together down by the main road.
Hilda was a shrill unpleasant old woman who was personally determined that no black or Asian people should ever enjoy any freedom within her library. Whenever a hapless black man appeared at the front door, she would follow him around at his elbow with the blazing eyes of a murderess, clarifying regulation after regulation with grossly excessive politeness. Did he want a certain book? He could not be trusted to find it for himself, and so he would have to stand meekly in the background whilst she stamped around the bookshelves. Few ever got to the stage of borrowing a book, but if they insisted upon this right, Hilda would react as if they were trying to buy the library, producing binders of legal documents and issuing histrionic demands. Once the black man had conceded that it was wise to leave, she would retreat to her office and collapse into her chair, exhausted.
“I hear that Tom Martin has been a bad boy,” I ventured over the hurly burly of the passing traffic.
Hilda smiled in a dazed way at the name of her cat, before she shot me a look of suspicion. “It’s these tramworks,” she hissed. “Builders everywhere. Trucks going back and forth up and down the road. One day he won’t escape with his tail. No wonder he’s in a temper!”
All of a sudden, my cigarette was virtually gone, like a snowman which has been left in the sun for the afternoon. I tried to suck some final sensation out of it and felt only blank. They should make cigarettes longer as we become deadened to them, with little stumps for kids and long dangling appendages for their elders. My tongue probed without moisture around a mouth which was clogged up with grime.
I had the impression that a bumblebee had skated past my ear and then Tom Martin was rubbing against my shins and I was at a loss to say where he had come from. “So how many people has he bitten?” I inquired, cringing at the strained jocularity in my voice. Whenever I try to speak with Hilda, I sound condescending.
“He hasn’t hurt anybody!” Hilda replied stoutly. “He bites me all the time.”
I bent over absent-mindedly to cup my hand over Tom Martin’s skull, only to freeze as if electricity was suddenly leaping through me and sparks were spraying from my forehead. My hand was pinned inside Tom Martin’s leathery jaws. It felt like I had slid it inside the back of a dirty old clock and got it caught in the machinery. There was something oddly assured about this attack. When a cat usually bites you, it is over before it has begun and the cat is tumbling back with a startled look on its face. But Tom Martin was actually taking a mouthful out of me, as a man would with a chicken drumstick.
When I got my hand back, there was a clear pocket of flesh missing from the base of my little finger. Blood was slipping over my hand like a glove. Tom Martin crouched over the tiny piece of me, engrossed in chewing and tearing at it.
I felt amazement rather than pain and my head bobbed for several seconds in dazzling light. Hilda beamed at me with massive exhilaration. “Did he bite you?” she crowed. As exhaustively as if I was wheeling around stage scenery, I turned my back on her and tottered away from the library, in any direction, like a drunken man.
Needless to say, I steered clear of Broomhouse library after that. Yet I suppose that I remained in some unsettled mystical debt to the place, for one afternoon my editor James phoned me with an assignment which would send me all the way back there.
“I have a new angle on the trams fiasco, but it’s a tricky thing to write about.”
“A number of construction vehicles have gone… well, the only word is missing.”
“You mean like taking a wrong turn at the roundabout. They’re all driving around the suburbs somewhere?”
There was suddenly a distinct note of hysteria in James’ voice. “No, it’s like the Bermuda Triangle. They’ve simply vanished. It happened whilst they were all passing through the same place. The council think that armed gangs are hijacking bulldozers, but why kidnap the drivers? There have been no ransom demands.”
“Where’s the place? Is it triangular?”
“It’s Broomhouse – near to Murrayfield, I think. The only thing on the map is a library and I wondered if you might nip over there and interview the librarian.”
“Ah, I know the lady – her cat bit off one of my fingers. I’d sue her if I knew how to. I have to now miss out a tenth of the notes whenever I play the piano. So when’s the deadline?”
“Weeks ago. The tram project has already been completed and the new tram is making its inaugural journey down there tomorrow.”
I chuckled. “Ah, I see. Nobody from our website has been invited to this ceremony and you’re scheming to ruin their party.”
James was beginning to splutter. “We’re a prestigious part of Edinburgh’s media and once again we’ve been overlooked…”
“I’ll get down there tomorrow morning.”
I found Hilda smoking by the main road, apparently completely unaltered since I had last left her months before. Our conversation resumed as if I had been away merely for a minute. She could have been smoking the same cigarette.
“Yes, there was a woman here on Tuesday. She said her husband had driven a bulldozer past the library and disappeared. The woman was…” Hilda paused, glanced around and lowered her voice. “God bless me, but she was a nigger.” She gazed at me in defiance, expecting me to put up a fight, but I gave her a noncommittal nod. “I don’t know if her husband was a nigger…” she conceded.
I regarded her with amusement. “How could you lose a bulldozer? Your library is usually so well organised.”
Hilda was not going to be tricked into a good mood. “It’s no my job to watch for missing things,” she maintained peevishly.
“But surely there is CCTV outside this library…?”
I had forgotten what it was like to experience such awesome terror. For a moment I was instantly reacquainted with the overwhelming dread of nightmares – something which I have only ever experienced as a child. Decades fell away, leaving a puny shivering infant. Hilda stood transfixed, her face glistening with an almost inhuman hatred. “Tom Martin!” she croaked, her voice virtually unrecognisable. “Tom Martin!” The sky was full of the sounds of galloping; everything in the world was bearing down on me as if I was a hole through which it was draining inexorably…
I flinched, the spell freed me for a second as if by a miracle, and then I was running blindly for safety, my heart bounding ahead of me like a hare.
Five minutes later, plodding along the main road, I did not know why I had been so scared. Thank heaven that there was no CCTV outside that library if I was going to make such an idiot of myself.
The tram was embarking on its maiden voyage at midday; it was leaving from Edinburgh Park and its journey would end outside Murrayfield stadium. At Edinburgh Park, I found the delegation to be so small that I was able to get within hearing distance of everything. I noted the presence of the Lord Provost, several councillors, and the editor of the Edinburgh Evening News. The head of the previous administration, Jenny Dawe, was also there, presumably invited as a courtesy. The officials all looked somewhat stunned, as if they were usually buried in hushed, darkened offices and they had today made a rare appearance in the real world. They were led towards the awaiting tram, huddling together like the residents of a care home on a summer’s outing.
I knew that the Lord Provost was required to give a speech and that the group would be photographed inspecting their tram, leaving me with sufficient time to cycle over to the point where the tram would pass Broomhouse library. I was hurtling down Bankhead Drive – some decrepit leftover infrastructure which still runs alongside the tramline – occasionally glancing over my shoulder to see whether the tram was catching up.
Finally the hairs on the back of my neck stood erect, signifying that the tram was gliding up behind me, cloaked in all of its silent mysteriousness. For a moment, I tried to keep up with it. I was panting and gasping, my legs smarting with agony and my mind gibbering with shock. The tram driver sat serenely at the wheel, or whatever they have to direct trams. Then I was no longer at the head of the tram and then I was somewhere down its belly and then I had let go of the tip of its tail.
I slowed to watch the tram continue untiringly. It was triumphant.
Yet the tram was passing an elm tree and nothing was emerging from the other side. I blinked – it was a curious illusion – it looked as if the tram was flattening itself against the side of the tree.
I stopped and suddenly a fever had engulfed me and I stood rattling on the spot. Time had frozen like the unearthly note of an orchestra in tuning, and we were all waiting for a signal from the conductor’s baton. But reality was not going to resume.
I looked around but nobody else seemed to have witnessed the disappearance. Then a figure emerged from the bushes beside the tramline and proceeded to cross the road in front of me.
It was Hilda and she was returning to Broomhouse library. She was waddling along with that dazed, rather imbecilic expression on her face. Then I noticed that she had what looked like a toy train clamped under her arm.
Tom Martin appeared at the entrance of the library, his tail in the air. Hilda was looking around for the cat and when she saw him she clucked to capture his attention. She then crouched down to throw the train underarm and it bounced in the dust in front of him. Tom Martin lost all interest in her or anything else and he pounced on the train. Next, the cat was rolling and biting, as he wrapped himself around it.
As I cycled past the library, I experienced the most horrible thing. Softly but very distinctly, there were tiny screams floating on the air…
Edinburgh’s media are still getting to grips with how to report the story of the missing councillors, although in countless practical respects the administration of the city remains unimpaired. James warns me that reports of a Bermuda Triangle in Edinburgh do not constitute sensible news.
I recently had occasion to call in at Broomhouse library between shifts. Hilda was busy apparently trying to explain to a Chinese woman what reading was and how books worked. The Chinese woman cut Hilda short to inquire whether the library provided Yoga lessons and Hilda shook her head in disbelief. I went in search of the library’s meagre stock of history books, but when I retreated to a sofa with a biography of Churchill, I found that all of the pages were covered with blotches of black mould. It was the same with the next five books I inspected. I looked around, suddenly frantic, but everybody else in the library seemed oblivious to the fact that the books were decomposing.
The Chinese woman’s baby had found the toy box in the children’s section and he began to issue exuberant squawks. When I stood up, he cooed at me and flourished a toy in indication. It was a very grimy model bulldozer and it had secreted some dark residue which was all over the baby’s hands. Once the Chinese woman and her baby had agreed to be expelled from the library, and Hilda was following them still ranting her genteel abuse, I emptied the toy box and laid out the contents. There were three toy bulldozers, a cement mixer, a pickup truck and a blackened and evil-smelling tram.
[Tychy previously reviewed David Miller’s “The Great Tram Disaster.” Ed.]