Dark Interlude
Pamela Kelt

“We are drawn by the dark, the strange,
the unsettling … at least for a while.”
Ivaniev Gregorovich, St. Petersburg, 1905

Extract from Chapter One


Alexandra stood at her desk, perversely positioned beneath a draughty window. Through the small leaded panes, the grey expanse of the North Sea glinted, its surface reminiscent of chiselled granite. She tucked a stray lock of brown hair behind her ear. It fell back at once. 

Four years she had worked at the university library. Through four years of war. Through four matching sets of freezing winters, draughty springs, dusty summers, and breezy autumns. Despite its dusty discomforts, the library had been a sanctuary, far away from the world and its tumult.

“Sorry, Mr. Wilson.” She dragged her thoughts back to the present, turning to the small, stooped man in his late fifties hovering by the door with his trolley. It was stacked high with an assortment of large boxes wrapped in brown paper, each tied neatly with string and individually labelled and tagged. She checked her inventory. “Yes, that’s the last of it.”

“Shall I call you a taxicab? Just this once?”

“No, no. I’ll travel with the van to the station.” She smiled at his doubtful look. “I don’t mind a bumpy ride.”

She put on her hat and gloves and followed him out, the library’s familiar musty smell lingering in her nostrils, and wondered if she would ever return.

In the cobbled courtyard outside, the van driver was waiting, the starter handle in position. As Wilson shunted the final load next to her trunk, Alexandra climbed into the passenger seat. The porter cranked the handle and the engine started. With a nod to the porter, he pulled away, and the vehicle trundled slowly over the uneven flagstones and out through the shadows of the ancient arch, its dark bricks mottled with lichen.

They made their way down the narrow streets of the old town. Every so often, through the gaps between the buildings, Alexandra caught a glimpse of the cliffs, seagulls spiralling at their base, or the castle ruins, crumbling stacks of pitted stones light grey against a pale sky.

Once at the station, it took a while to get everything onto the platform, but she had planned her arrival in plenty of time for the Edinburgh train. Surrounded by her parcels, Alexandra sat on the wooden bench and readjusted her woollen muffler to keep out the seeping cold of the dank December day and repel any conversational boarders. Try as she might, it was impossible not to feel anxious about the journey. Brought up in a small village in Fife, she had rarely travelled beyond its borders, but although daunted by the prospect of her journey, and despite the fact it was only mid-morning, she closed her eyes, exhausted by the past few days of feverish packing and organising. 

Just a few short days, she thought, since everything had changed. She had been so immersed in recording the past that she had forgotten to pay heed to the present, never mind the future. Her existence, such as it was, had simply ended, as if her life had been simply snapped shut, like a book one has grown tired of reading.

* * * *
She’d been busy working in the far corner of the modern languages section, completing a menial but nonetheless satisfying task of replenishing the stocks of glue. A grey overall protected her neat, buttoned blouse and dark ankle-length skirt. First, she weighed the cornflour and tipped it into a jar. After measuring in the exact amount of cold water, she stirred it into a paste, patiently breaking up the lumps, before adding a few more chosen ingredients. Outside, the raucous cries of jackdaws on the slate roof vied with the blustering wind whistling through the gaps in the ancient window frames.

It was November 1914 when she’d applied for the job as deputy librarian at St. Peter’s University. Of course, with the men fast disappearing—including her own fiancé—they’d had no choice but to employ a woman, even if she had been one of the first female graduates. 

More or less training herself, she felt she’d done a good job. First, she’d standardised the cataloguing system across the languages. Then, she set about repairing the most popular texts used by students, to save money. Finally, she moved onto the archive section, restoring various foreign language collections dating back to the fifteenth century that belonged to the university.

She kept stirring the adhesive, relishing the peace and quiet of her academic eyrie.

All that time she’d spent—gluing, stitching, patching, numbering, stacking...With each passing season, fewer voices echoed in the courtyard below. As the university struggled on, and the names of those missing or killed in action lengthened, she’d concentrated on her work for the arts faculty. As the world tore itself apart, she found some solace in patching some of it, albeit a small proportion, back together.

She’d signed up for a series of evening classes in bookbinding, where she learned how to stitch loose sheets of manuscript into booklets. Latterly, she mastered the technique of restoring gaps on double-sided documents with chiffon. Once pasted on and pressed between sheets of greaseproof paper, the repair was nothing short of miraculous.

The storeroom was now packed with millboard, whipcord, needles, paste brushes, canvas, and rolls of tape, all sourced within her meagre budget. To the bursar’s dismay, she’d even insisted on the purchase of a “new-fangled” electric vacuum cleaner to keep the collection free of dust. She had arranged for blinds to be installed to prevent sunlight from damaging the leather. 

The next year, she furthered her interests and took a course in photography, starting with portraits and progressing to achieving mastery of the art of flash powders. The year after, she’d arranged for Georgie, a young lad who’d been with the cleaning staff, to be assigned permanently to the library. He was a simple boy with an obsession for orderliness and a knack for remembering random numbers. Once trained in the catalogue system, he proved invaluable for daily duties and occasional mishaps, such as when a butter-fingered old prof dropped a tray of index cards, or when a book was misfiled.

At her insistence, smoking and the use of fountain pens by students and staff were both banned. Sometimes she wished she could ban the students and staff too, for they were a menace, constantly losing items, or folding the corners of rare books, or tracing over designs heavy-handedly. One scoundrel had even tried to purloin a valuable text in order to offer it for sale, but she’d caught him in flagrante and he’d been sent back south to England forthwith.

In the spring of ’18, her fiancé, Timothy Leintwardine, was finally shipped back from France, injured, having lost the use of his left foot. He was distant, altered. After three months of awkwardness, they’d agreed to call off their engagement. She would always remember that day. He’d taken her to the smartest cinema in Edinburgh to see the latest Violet Hopson film about a baronet’s daughter working in a munitions factory who helped a designer save plans from a spying foreman. Before it played, they’d shown an actual newsreel of the policemen going on strike in London, angry that they earned less than unskilled labourers. “Spirit of Petrograd!” said the caption underneath a triumphant Sylvia Pankhurst.

Timothy had bought her a cup of tea, and he told her he was going to marry the young nurse from Kirkcudbright who had attended him during his recovery. And that was that.

Autumn descended into winter and, finally, the war ground to a halt. 

Alexandra removed the brush from the bottle of paste, placed it on a newspaper and screwed the lid on tight. Fresh headlines jumped out at her, and she averted her gaze. She tried not to dwell on newspapers since the latter days of 1914, when it had become obvious that the war would not be over by Christmas and casualties were beginning to make no sense.

Her eyes strayed back to the paper. Now the war was over, perhaps she could risk a glimpse.
The paper was a month old, printed before the Armistice had finally been signed in Paris. There was page after page about the revolt by German sailors during late October in Wilhelmshaven. At the university, everyone had been talking about it, from the bursary clerks to the tea ladies. Even the academic staff bestirred themselves to conjecture about the implications.

This particular national paper had predicted how it would set off a chain of unrest across the whole of Germany. Proven right, now everyone was talking about the new republic and the inevitable abdication of the Kaiser himself.

So the war was over and things were beginning to change all over Britain. Not always for the better, to judge by the press. The article mused on the nature of revolutions, with gloomy forecasts of more unrest in Europe, and possibly Great Britain itself. It seemed unthinkable. Surely the populace were too tired, too phlegmatic…

One day, with a sudden gasp of cool air, the library door swung open and Alexandra’s world was turned upside-down. In walked—or rather limped—the former senior archivist, named somewhat inappropriately Dr. Burns. Pale, haunted, missing a leg, but alive. He had survived the war, and was now apparently resuming his duties. With barely a nod in her direction, he settled at the desk, elbowed her things to one side and started to shuffle papers. 

For the first three days, this was all he did; then he started to poke around, asking about her procedures, nodding, but not replying. He did not seem to approve.

Finally, she had summoned up the courage and asked if her own position were to be made permanent. He simply shrugged. So, she wrote to the Principal to clarify her situation. She was still awaiting a reply when she heard the sound of steps clacking down the corridor in her direction.

“Miss Milton?” A porter poked his head round the door.

“Good day, Mr. Wilson.” She had committed every employee’s name to memory. It was useful when she needed to get things done. 

“Oh, ah,” he said, his gaze sliding towards Dr. Burns who seemed inordinately involved in stacking index cards. Young Georgie was stumping down a ladder with a box under his arm. Wilson sidled toward her and spoke in a loud whisper. “Principal would like to see you, miss, if it’s convenient.”

* * * *

By Pamela Kelt

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