Shortlisted for the Wollongong Writer’s Festival Prize, 2016
We’ve spent all morning in the basement weeding microfilm from the library collection. The industry insists we use the term “deselection”, but what we’re doing is marking them for a very literal kind of discard.
We transfer each dense square box from one trolley to the other. I consider the boxes, interpret their statistical value, and relocate. On one trolley each roll of microfilm is a resource discoverable in our collection, able to be elected for use. On the other trolley, they will be sent to a rented skip bin once we’ve gutted them from their containers. These sturdy little boxes we will also flatten and shed.
You tally the statistics on a sheet of paper secured to a wooden clipboard. You hold the bottom of the clipboard against you, its wooden edge sinking into your soft tummy.
Same call number, same statistic. The entire year of 1978’s forty-four newspaper editions brutally qualifies as one statistic.
Sometimes you adjust them on the discard trolley or brush your fingers over the dusty labels, typewritten in Courier New or handwritten in the irregular scripts of women who have worked here before us. I think about the film curled inside, about to be wrenched from their shadowy boxes. A British thesis, Descartes on passion, the Entire English grammar, sitting at the bottom of a skip?
The act doesn’t seem to disturb you as much as it does me, but then you sigh and say, “You know, I bet in fifteen years these will be fashionable again. Like vinyl is now.”
We can’t speak much because the task requires an absurd amount of concentration. I glance up at you from where I am kneeling at the second shelf. Your gaze makes me feel like metal against a flint. We are both standing in the narrow space between the two loaded trolleys. You could have established yourself anywhere else in the room.
“Do you have a vinyl collection?” I ask.
“No, I deselected them.”
We both laugh a breathy nasal exhale that’s not really a laugh.
“But anyway,” you resume, “it’s a cycle.”
I approach the next row on the trolley. Under my breath I count and tip the boxes against my hand, “One two three four… four? Four. Five six seven eight nine ten. Ten. Stat ten.” Then I shift the ten boxes as you scribe. The air conditioning vent above us sounds like the squeal of a spark train rocking to a stop on metal tracks, only it resumes.
“Reckon you’ll be up for some air soon?” You ask.
At the pub down the street, we sit on the verandah overlooking the ocean. The rain occasionally turns to mist across our legs. Your thumb is pressed white against the perspiring beer bottle and you turn it noiselessly in your hand, watching it swivel.
We’ve never eaten lunch alone together. We don’t know each other well, but I am persistently charmed by you. It started many years ago like the quiet turn of water that eventually becomes a flood tide. It’s hard to remember now that there was ever a time when the ebb and flow of your mood didn’t function as a gravitational force for mine. Some mornings you won’t say hello to me and I crackle and roll and try to settle into the empty space between us like waterlogged sand as the tide goes out.
Today you seem relaxed in my presence and I am trying to mirror it, sitting back in my wooden seat, my hands around my mug of coffee. I have begun to love what I used to hate about drinking it black, finding the bitterness delicious instead of repellent.
“You know, there are people who would be able to do things with those microfilms. Even the microfiche we did yesterday,” I volunteer. “Coasters, art, that sort of thing.”
“Yeah, I agree. It’s a shame. But we couldn’t find homes for that amount of material. We just couldn’t get rid of it.”
“I know,” I say, “but it bothers me.”
You cock your head and smile, looking at me the way a person would inspect a grasshopper that’s landed on their picnic blanket. “What part?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want all of that work to go to waste. All those words and history. Like imagine who’s sat with their hands on those reels before. Imagine who converted it to microfilm.”
I am articulating myself surprisingly well for someone who is normally floored to silence by you.
“Most of it has been digitised, if that’s any comfort,” you offer.
“But what about the labour? All of that energy has been wasted.”
“Hmm. Maybe that energy just gets recycled.”
I shrug, not quite sure of or convinced by what you mean. Into pixels, you mean? Into us?
You meet my eyes and I look away. When you too have turned back to the view of the ocean, I look sidelong at you. You are wearing a knee-length chiffon skirt and a grey shirt I have seen many times before. This comforts me about you, that you wear the same clothes repeatedly. Despite your insistence on getting rid of the redundant in our collection, there must be a part of you that sees the value in retention. The same old clothes over and over again, shirts and skirts and jeans, not a constant accumulation of new clothes like the some of the younger staff, my age, who reach desperately for wearable identities the way some people reach for unfamiliar bodies.
Back in the humid basement, backlit by the overcast light that spills in through the small window, you ask what I initially hear as, “Could you pick me up at midnight?”
“Sorry?” I ask, momentarily stunned.
“Could you pick that thing up to your right?” you repeat. You gesture to a roll of microfilm that has slipped out of its case and spun out beside my feet.
“Otherwise you might trip on it,” you clarify.
It occurs to me as I turn to hide my flushed face that I would have said yes, had your question not been misheard. From anywhere, I’d have picked you up at midnight.
Later, we have to flatten the boxes we’ve taken films from and tagged for weeding. We start gently and practically, folding the edges back with our thumbs and tossing them into yet another bin. In here, we are surrounded by bins. Some look like plastic council bins with coloured lids, some more like miniature skip bins. Each element of the microfilm has to be dispersed: plastic, film, cardboard, rubber bands. We unfold the cardboard, lay each side of the box against itself.
Then you smile and drop one of the boxes on the ground. You stamp on it with your sandaled foot, all the while holding my eyes. Are you challenging me? You’re standing in front of a pedestal fan and as it oscillates back around to blow in your direction, it sends your blue skirt splaying out around your bare knees, your calf muscle tensed as you press down on the cardboard with the ball of your foot.
“Is that what you meant by recycled labour?” I ask, trying to make light of and distract from the desire you’ve spurned in the pit of my stomach.
You smirk, “Someone converts a book to microfilm and decades later a couple of librarians get their daily exercise.”
I laugh. I don’t want to hurt the boxes, the typewritten metadata, their history and frayed edges, but for you I throw one on the ground and squash it and laugh as if I’m not conflicted about it, as if I haven’t implanted empathy into it. I’m the breakwall and you’re the king tide coming over me, undoing me like the corners of these forty-year-old boxes under the force of our feet.
Then, for two days, you go down into the basement with another colleague and we barely see each other. The humidity rises unbearably, the rain continues. I go through all stages of grief in those 48 hours and come in to work early on the third day, trying to reclaim this space as one that doesn’t depend on the surge of your presence.
Arriving, I find that the landing outside has flooded and spilled into the overnight returns chute. Water, green gum leaves and spindly twigs have gushed in through the chute, turned the cardboard returns box to mush, soaked the foam that lined it and soiled the striped carpet. Where the tide of water finally rests, it looks like cat vomit, frothy and jaundice. The single book deposited there has swelled.
I stand over it all, appalled but also somehow tranquilized by the mess of it. I am torpid and slack-mouthed until I hear the click of the back door and spring into response.
On this morning, you call me back down into the basement. We work on the microfilm, this time with you doing the selecting and me taking stock on the clipboard. It is a two-woman job not just so one can tally but also so there is an avenue for clarification. Should these two volumes be considered one statistic if they share a call number but have different authors? It’s the end of the week now and we rarely need the advice of the other.
My handwriting is far messier than yours. I try to focus on the task. I try not to be drawn into watching you again, but you are wearing a top with singlet straps and when you move I can see the dark auburn hair under your arms. I can see the way the bones in your hands stretch against your skin as you scale through the boxes.
At lunch, you invite another colleague to come with us to the pub at the beach. She’s going to meet us there after she processes a membership. It’s a small victory, being permitted to walk alone with you without having to initiate it. I can say to myself: Well, you tried to stay away from her but circumstance threw you together.
As we cross the gravel parking lot, into the balmy air, you suddenly cry out.
“What?” I turn my head towards you, follow your gaze.
There’s a bee on your shoulder, its stinger still injected into your skin. You’re swatting at it and missing, squeamish to touch it. I drop my backpack on the gravel. You swat it again and the bee lifts off. I can tell by the colour of your skin that the stinger has stayed. I imagine its venom, attached there in your body in a sac. Retained.
“Are you allergic?” I ask.
You shake your head.
Redness has spread around the site, outwards like an inkblot. Around the stinger, white puffy skin looks translucent and grisly. You gaze down at it, your mouth open.
“Here. C’mere,” I say. “You’re meant to get the stinger out.”
You wave your hand and laugh. I’ve never seen you at this kind of loss before. You shake your hair behind your shoulder. I can smell your sweat. Our eyes meet briefly as I move closer.
Standing at your side, I slide my left hand through the space between your torso and arm, taking hold of your elbow from the back to steady you. There is a heaviness in my touch, made light only by its context, and I hope you cannot sense it. Your body is warm. I think about the arch in your side, the way your elbow turns a sharp corner against my palm.
I bring my right hand up to your shoulder and try to gently scratch the stinger out with my middle fingernail.
You wince and I cringe, “I’m sorry.”
“Are you really?” you tease. “You look focused maybe, but not sorry.”
I change tack on your shoulder, pinching the barb between the nails of my thumb and index finger. This way, I imagine the pain to feel at least more precise. I am touching your skin, I chant silently to myself.
“Distract yourself,” I say.
Out of the corner of my eyes, I see you squinting down at me. At any other moment I would have turned my paranoid gaze upon myself, agonised over how I look to you. But right now I am touching your skin.
“Um.” You ask, “Are you short sighted or long sighted?”
I draw the stinger out. “There,” I say, holding it up. I release you and stand back, feeling instantly unmoored. I point to my glasses: “I’m short-sighted.”
“Thank you,” you say, your hand hovering over the site of the sting.
“I think you should wash it,” I say, gesturing to the sting and then to the beach across the road. “The salt water would be good for it.”
We cross the road and you walk ahead of me down the wooden steps to the sand. There, you take off your sandals and hold them by the straps that sling around your ankles. I do the same with my shoes and roll up my pants.
It’s high tide and we don’t have to walk far to reach the water. It swills around our feet, an eddying warmth. Again, you walk ahead of me into the water and lean forwards, using your hands to cup and tip water onto your shoulder. You stand there and I watch you, thrown by the possibility of your wounding. I am still holding the stinger.
You turn and wade back to stand before me. I think you are going to say something about the sting or the deselection or work, but instead you ask, “How short sighted are you?”
Before I can answer, you reach over and lift my glasses from my face. It happens in slow motion. Your wet hands leave beads of cool salt water on the sides of my cheeks.
I’ve been thinking of you as a king tide, but I realise that a king tide is gradual and predictable, and in the end it’s really only the surface of the water that washes in. Right now you are a tsunami. A tsunami where the movement comes right from the bottom of the sea floor like a column, a wall of inevitable water, all the water that there is, which rushes and roars and collapses seismically upon the earth. That’s you, reaching across and lifting my glasses from my face.
The sea has been displaced. I see you the way I would see you underwater. Pixelated, blurred. How could my feelings for you be a waste of energy? How could they possibly be recycled?
That evening, I stay back until you and all the others have left. I go downstairs and look at the trolleys which our hands have touched, the clipboard that has been held against your stomach. I fill two canvas library bags with redundant, dusty, doomed microfilm. Tomorrow you will report that the deselection project is complete.