The Long and Spectacular Life of Agnes Magnusdottir 7
I pushed The Ministry of Complaints across the counter towards the librarian. He picked it up, opened the front cover and looked at me with a puzzled frown.
"Not one of ours. Are you donating it to our collection? A nice gesture but it is a very famous book and we already have three or four copies I believe. One of them is even a first edition. It is in the vault along with our other very rare books. I often think it strange, how these singular objects obtain such value."
His accent was almost perfectly English but I remembered now, having heard it from my father I supposed, that he hailed originally from Iceland.
"What do you know about Magnusdottir and her disappearance?”
I had pre-written the words on a pad I had bought from a small newsagent’s on the way over. I ripped out the page and held it up.
The librarian, squinting his eyes, lent forward. Then he emitted a loud disgruntled sigh.
"Do you know how many times me and my kinsfolk have been asked the same question? And I thought finally the story had died." He shook his head and then, perhaps relenting a little in that way that people often do when they have got what is on their mind off their chest, said, "The information is all on the internet. Why don't you try there?"
In the first flush of excitement I already had. The info-line at the bottom of the search screen had told me there were four hundred and fifty-eight thousand references and that was just in English.
Clicking on a few of the top hits I came up with the same facts I already knew, about the story of the book, the success it had had and even how it had saved the publisher.
Then, of course, there was page after page about the disappearance of the author, theories of what had happened to her and why.
A lot of the pages seemed to have been written by the same kind of cranks who saw Elvis in the local chip shop and John Lennon at the movie theatre. Even if the librarian didn't know anything at least I would be speaking to an actual person. I could quote him in my article.
I wrote quickly.
"I've had my jaw wired shut and my girlfriend is flying off to Switzerland with another man. Please. Do it for my father. He always loved coming here."
The librarian’s face was quite static for a moment, like he was posing for a photograph taken with a very slow exposure, and then he held out a hand for me to shake.
“So it is you. Your father was one of our most esteemed visitors. Such a tragedy. To take your own life. What is the world coming to?”
Eldur, the librarian, picked me up outside the library at eight-thirty on the dot in an old battered Ford. After fifteen minutes I lost track of where we were.
Rain started to fall, a torrential shower, making everything outside indistinct. Tinny opera music was playing through the speakers. Music exactly like my father used to play, dense and full of secrets.
It got dark and then it got darker. Lights came on in houses around us and then the lights disappeared as the houses disappeared, replaced by fields and trees and dark shadowy beasts with long backs.
I didn't know where we were going and I became paranoid. Perhaps the whole thing was a trick. You hear about this kind of thing all the time, young men lured away and then either murdered or kept in cages for years on end, pissed on and abused, oversize fruit shoved up their arses.
I lit a cigarette and put it to my lips. I thought about Zara. She was probably in bed with Russell right now. I could see their naked bodies writhing together like two snakes. I shouldn't have left them. If I was there they might have thought twice. Or even once. I had made a mistake.
"It is, as they say, a family possession. An albatross around our necks."
The words woke me. As my eyes adjusted to the light, or lack of it, ‘the albatross’ came into view and for one disorientating second I thought it was The Ministry of Complaints itself for the building before us appeared to be an almost exact copy of the one that graced my imagination, solidly square and intimidating.
"Come. I will give you the grand tour."
By the time I had crossed the car park, carefully avoiding the thick weeds pushing up through the cracked asphalt ready to grip and twist an unsuspecting ankle, Eldur was already at a frosted glass security door.
He punched in a code, each button sounding a different note, and led me into a echoing lobby area.
As I took a single step forward something crunched under my foot. I must have jumped because Eldur put out a reassuring hand.
"Don't worry. There’s nothing in here. Only sometimes the mice get in and they can't get out. Poor things."
From his pocket Eldur produced a torch. Moving the beam around he picked out rotten carpets, mildewed walls, what must once have been a reception desk now resembling something washed up after a shipwreck.
"You should have seen it in its heyday. It was all very marvellous. Some of our tenants were quite famous. There was a young lady who slept with the foreign minister of the time and an Indian gentleman who had made all his money from mints. But don't put that in your article. I’m not supposed to be living here myself."
Pulling a face Eldur put a hand right up to the top of his forehead.
"It was mortgaged up to here even back then. Then when the banks collapsed we lost it all together. You've heard of the disaster the Icelandic banks got themselves into I suppose? Interest rates went through the roof. But what can the banks do with it now they've reclaimed it from us?”
We had been walking all this time, picking our way over debris, but we stopped now.
“Don't worry. It's perfectly safe.”
For a second I wondered what he meant and then I saw the glowing G in the wall above us.
G for Ground.
We were in front of a lift, its still shiny doors dimly reflecting us in the torchlight. Once more I found myself wanting to cry out.
When I was twelve years old my left arm had got firmly stuck in the doors of a Parisian hotel lift and every so often I still had nightmares about the pressure I had felt as the carriage tried to raise my arm up into the air and then my mother’s screams as my father yanked me backwards and the multiple snaps I felt as my arm broke in several places. That was the first time I had truly felt my father’s disappointment in me.
I was supposed to have been hardy like him. If I couldn't survive in the cosseted modern world what chance did I have in the wilds? He was, after all, the great adventurer of his age and I was supposed to be a hero like him.
The truth of the matter was that I wasn't.
I entirely lacked spunk.
And that was why I looked for it in others?
All journalists, after all, are suckers. Sometimes we are on our knees at the front, sometimes at the back. Doing what we need to get the story.
Empty vessels. That’s us.
I loved it.
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