The doors swung inwards to admit Jones to the library. He nodded in greeting to the woman walking out but she didn’t respond; too busy putting the books she had borrowed in her shopping bag, Jones realised.
He approached the first machine in a bank of five, pulling from the pocket of his overcoat the book he wished to return. Three options glowed on the screen: BORROW, PAY, and RETURN. He selected the last – or rather, tried to. He touched the rectangle on the screen; it was meant to represent a button, but nothing happened. He tried again, a little more firmly this time. Again: nothing. He pressed the pad of his fingertip across the word RETURN. Nothing. He prodded and pushed and tapped and kept trying but could not get the machine to respond.
Faulty, he diagnosed, and shuffled along to the next machine. Here it was the same story. He moved on to the third, and then the fourth. At last he came to the fifth machine and he could still not get the system to respond to his touch. He wiped his fingers on his trousers but that made not one jot of difference. He wiped the screen with the sleeve of his coat. He may as well have not bothered.
He looked around for someone to assist but, like policemen, the library staff never seemed to be in evidence when you wanted them. Other library users approached the machines. Jones tried to warn them that the machines were on the blink but they ignored him. They touched the screen and processed their books with no trouble at all. Jones could not believe it. He hurried to a machine he had seen working perfectly, but when he tried, it refused to acknowledge he was there. What a waste of time! Jones longed for the old days before all this computerised, automatic rubbish, when someone would stamp your books for you and you could have a nice chat about the weather and the price of fish.
With a grunt of frustration, Jones marched toward the exit. He rammed the book back in his pocket. If they wanted the book back, they could bloody well whistle for it. As a final insult, the silver square on the wall wasn’t working. Jones had to wait for someone to come in from outside before he could slip through the automated doors. He sidled past the woman who had activated the switch on the other side. She looked vaguely familiar to Jones but he couldn’t place her. She looked upset, too, poor cow, and was clutching a letter.
Jones watched her approach a desk – unmanned, of course! – but no, within seconds a library assistant appeared and smiled a welcome. The doors closed then so Jones didn’t hear the conversation that took place.
“I’ve had this letter,” sniffed the woman, her eyes brimming with tears. “My husband was always a stickler for getting his books back on time. He loved the library; it was a favourite haunt of his. But he – he – passed away, and what with all the arrangements and everything, I’m afraid it got overlooked.”
The library assistant took the letter and typed something into a computer.
“That’s quite all right, Mrs Jones,” she smiled.