Long Overdue

Mrs Wells approached the desk with trepidation.  The librarian was engaged in some task, her fingertips dancing across the keypad in a frantic rhythm.  Computers, thought Mrs Wells, everything’s computers nowadays.

“Can I help you?” the librarian glanced away from her screen to acknowledge the old woman’s presence.

“It’s just that I – I have a book to bring back.”  Mrs Wells delved a hand into her shopping bag but stopped when the librarian pointed across the room.

“Self-service machine over there.  You can scan it in yourself.”

“Can I?”  Mrs Wells looked around.  A box with a screen on it was standing sentinel by the exit.  It reminded her of the first television set she had ever seen back when the Queen was crowned.

“It’s easy.  Just wave the book under the red light – like they do with your frozen peas at the supermarket – then put the book on the trolley.  That’s all there is to it.”

“Ah.”  Mrs Wells didn’t move.  She waited for the librarian to realise she was still there.  “It’s just that – I’m afraid, it’s a little overdue, that’s all.  My late husband put it away and I’ve only just found it.”

“No problem. Scan it and it will tell you how much to pay.  Put your money in the slot.  It will even give you change.”

“Will it?”

Mrs Wells hobbled over to the self-service machine.  Her hip hadn’t been right since she fell off that camel.  He’d been a right laugh, that T.E. Lawrence.  She put her shopping bag on the floor and pulled out the book.  Perhaps she should warn the librarian that a couple of the pages had come loose?  She decided against it; the young woman was obviously busy and would probably be cross.  Bringing a book back late AND damaged.  She will throw the book at me!  Mrs Wells chuckled.  Mark Twain would have enjoyed that quip.  She could almost hear his hearty laughter, as if the last time they had spoken was only yesterday.

She peered at the machine.  An arrow on the screen was flashing, pointing at an opening underneath it.  A thin red line, like a length of cotton thread, was glowing.  Remembering what the young woman had said about supermarkets, Mrs Wells put the book into the opening.  There was no satisfying beep but the screen changed.  The words FINE DUE appeared and then a counter.  Digits rolled around as the machine calculated the amount.  And they kept rolling and rolling.

Oh dear!  Mrs Wells began to panic.  She hadn’t that much money in her purse, or in the world.  It was time to make herself scarce.  It wasn’t the same, now she was on her own.  Her husband used to take care of all the driving.  Why am I so nervous? she asked herself.  I have seen the world begin; I have seen how it ends.  Some slip of a girl behind a desk isn’t going to scare me!

The machine began to rock and judder.  Smoke rose from it and set off an alarm.

The librarian, when the fire brigade allowed her back indoors, gave the machine a contemptuous look.  Until it could be repaired or replaced, she would have to stamp the books by hand, the old-fashioned way.  Great.

There was one book on the trolley.  The librarian picked it up.  A piece of paper fell out – not a page from the book as Mrs Wells had feared, but a faded photograph.  It showed a man and a woman with sombre Victorian expressions.  The man was famous; the librarian recognised him as the writer H G Wells.  The woman was familiar too… The librarian’s eyes grew wide as she recognised the face of the old woman who had stood in that very spot only moments before the machine had imploded.

She looked exactly the same but the photograph must be well over a century old…

Some mistake, the librarian dismissed the picture.  Family resemblance or something.

She decided to have a quick tidy around before readmitting the public.  She looked at the spine of the book to see on which shelf it belonged and saw for the first time the title of the long overdue volume.

How To Travel Through Time”.

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