It hadn't been funny at the time, she thought, as the laughter of co-workers and friends encircled her like the plaiting of a holiday wreath. She must tell the story again they insisted, so-and-so hadn't heard it yet. So-and-so was new. New to Sophie's Christmas party for librarians, an annual event which had been held in her flat on Esplanade Avenue for the last eight years, and at which Melisande had first related the story with great dramatic energy, and a panache that had surprised, and later embarrassed her, due to the absurdity of it, and the underscoring of cathartic joy at having left the environment in which it had occurred, a story which now, in its eighth holiday incarnation, had withered somewhat, at least to her, before the bureaucratic expectations of saint-hood when it came to dealing with library patrons. She sipped her wine, smiling at the laughing faces around her as she remembered the actual day, when, on her first job at a downtown public library, one frequented a great deal by the homeless, the drug addicts, the mentally ill, the eccentrics, the local characters, and those with time and nothing else on their hands, she'd been called to the circulation desk from the office and told that there was a disturbance in the reading room. It had been a Saturday. She'd been in charge. The circulation staffer had pointed out the individuals involved and had whispered to her that the young man had complained that the person facing him across the table had been looking at him and giggling. The individual in question, a youngish woman with her head wrapped in tin foil, was sitting very low on her chair, her arms on the table, her head resting on the back of the high wood chair. Melisande had conjured up a sentence she hoped would be sufficient to ease the situation: “I'm sorry Miss, if you could refrain from laughing, you're disturbing the other patrons.” She had approached the table, the two patrons looking up at her, the young man with relief, the young woman with uncertainty, and she had said, “I'm sorry Miss, if you could refrain from laughing, you're disturbing the other patients.”
It hadn't been funny at the time.
The young woman had looked up at her, a smile breaking upon her face like the reflections of florescent light upon her aluminium foil, and, having caught the Freudian slip, had begun to laugh quietly which had made the young man indignant. In that moment of embarrassment, having reduced everyone to a patient of a psychiatric ward, she'd managed to look around the reading room at all the faces turned her way, many haggard and weary, beaten down by life and circumstances, their bodies frozen in the act of reading papers, magazines, books, a nightmarish vision of reverse judgement, and not knowing what else to say, she'd turned around and made her way back to the office, made a pot of tea to sooth her nerves, and thought a job in a private or university library would suit her better, feeling that her undergraduate degree in religious studies and her graduate degree in library science had not prepared her for dealing with such encounters.
“It hadn't been that funny at the time,” Melisande said over the thinning laughter around her, feeling that every ounce of amusement would be accounted for in some grand Karmic register and there would be hell to pay as her Father used to say.
“Patients,” Sophie said, tapping the new girl's arm with her hand, “It's still funny after all these years Melisande. What a wonderful transposition of words.”
“In the library I'm working at,” the new girl said, “we've been instructed to call library users, 'customers.' They think library user, patron, and client are outmoded. Customers. Sometimes I think I'm working in retail.”
The sound of Randy Travis's rich voice singing Meet Me Under the Mistletoe overlay the awkward silence that settled upon the party goers as they struggled to respond to this rather mundane remark.
Jonathan, a subject specialist at the university, came to the rescue: “At least that'll keep the word patient out of the equation.” A wink to Melisande. “Here's to customer,” he said, raising his glass, “may the Walmart greeting be soon to follow.” Having saved the party from a minor denouement, everyone raised their glass, and after they drank, a scattering of ideas for conversation, like the multiple trajectories of a fireworks explosion, spread through the room, their voices reduced to more intimate levels,
“So Jonathan, how's Frank doing these days?” Melisande asked, trying not to stare at his expensive mock-tortoiseshell—at least she assumed them to be mock turtle—glass frames.
“Well my dear, he's working away on a new book, provisionally entitled The Rake's Profit, or Tally Hoe: John Cleland and his Publishers. He's up to his earlobes in research. Just last night he was regaling me with details of one of Cleland's bookseller publishers and his stint in the pillory for publishing Fanny Hill.” Jonathan rolled his eyes.
“I guess Fanny Hill seems pretty tame compared to reading material these days. I overheard a woman at a bookshop tell a friend that she'd been reading one of those Fifty Shades books and how she had laughed her way through it.”
“God knows where all those millions of copies will end up. Elderly pensioners burning them in their fireplaces for warmth perhaps. Throw on another Fifty Shades Darker, my dear,” he said imitating an elderly voice, “I feel the draft on my back like the frigid breath of Dr. Freeze .”
“So, when do we get the wedding invitations Melisande?” Sophia asked from across the living room.”We're all looking forward to the day.”
Trying to appear her regular organized self, not wanting to let on that she and Pavor had yet to choose from the examples available, with their plethora of fonts, shapes, sizes, colours, embossing, ribbons, lace, textures, and photograph options. Pavor had offered to write a short short story to include with the invitation as well. A keepsake. “January, the month of Janus, the doorway to the new year, looking back, looking forward” she said, not wanting to commit to a specific day, “it will be a simple wedding.”
Sophie raised her glass, “Here's to Melisande and Pavor, may their wedding day be blessed with good friends and good weather.”
Jonathan gave her a squeeze with his left arm and whispered in her ear, “So, since it was a leap year, did you propose to Pavor or did he finally man up?”
Melisande slapped his thigh and gave him a playful nudge with her shoulder. “On bended knee between the pews of the McGill Chapel no less.” As the memory came back to her, she recalled the dual nature of the proposal, the confession before the request, the past before the future, the revelation of a predeceased wife and child, and how their ghosts had thrown a shroud over the proposal, one she hadn't noticed at first, but later had felt settle round her like a gloaming mist upon a farmer's field.
© Ralph Patrick Mackay
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the product of my imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.