“Hello. Uh….well, I’d like to turn myself in.”
“I’d like to report a crime – namely me, stealing from you. Ten years ago.”
“The name’s Mike. Hi! And I’m a thief. Not generally – just in your case. I’m your thief. Your own personal thief. You and me, joined by crime. It was yours, and I took it and then I ran like the clappers. Sort of. In 1999!”
“And it’s time I confessed. It’s been eating away at me!” I said brightly.
The desk clerk, against everything I believed I knew about human facial mobility, managed to look even more nonplussed. “I’ve…it’s been…what?”
So I bared my soul on the table before him – just like I’m about to do with you, dear reader.
A little over ten years ago, my criminal record was squeaky-clean. I might have occasionally taken the odd extra chip-fork here and there, built the occasional bit of scaffolding with breadsticks so my Pizza Hut buffet salad could scale heights that wiped out any profit they might have made from me…but on the whole, I was a law-abiding peep.
All that changed one evening in 1999, at Hornsea Library. That evening, I maxed out my library card in the usual way (the full six books, five of which would remain unread but apply such pressure of my peace of mind that I’d be compelled to get through the sixth before it was due back, and only have to pay fines on the other five).
One of those books was Europe by Norman Davies: comprehensive, witty, superb value for money, mind-opening, mesmerizingly written…and built like the side of a house. In fact, this is the kind of gravity-lensingly tome that often lurks in my bookcase for a decade, waiting for that glorious moment when I have Finally Cleared My Pile Of Books Waiting To Be Read. It’s a Desert Island kind of book – except for the fact that no boat could carry it out there, barring perhaps the Knock Nevis.
A book that’s hard to miss in every sense – mainly the physical one. But here’s the thing – I did. Because in 1999, I stopped living in Hornsea. I’d been going to A-level college in Hull as a mature student since 1998 – but ’99 was where I truly cut all my ties with the East Yorkshire town I’d lived in since 1982. I was focused on other things. University was my escape plan, my lifeline, my rumour of scientists in the Azores. I was forward-looking to a fault. I’d put Europe under some manky badminton shoes in a cupboard, and promptly forgotten it was there. Then I moved to York.
And that’s how I missed all the gently reminding, insistently reminding and stiffly threatening letters that the Hornsea Library kept sending me about returning Norman Davies to where he belonged. My Mum received them, piled them up, and I was always in too much of a rush to read them.
Sometime in 2003, I finally sorted through my backlog of mail and discovered my crime. I retrieved Europe (now smelling of gym rubber) and checked the ticket. It was true. It was terrifying. Thirty pence a day, for 4 years. £438! Of course, what they actually charge in these cases is the original price of the book (about £30), but terror had driven out common sense – something of a pattern in my life.
And then cowardice kicked in. (Again with the pattern thing). I couldn’t go back! I just…couldn’t. They’d judge me. Possibly using a jury – a rural jury. This is East Yorkshire, where ducking stools are still regarded as modern technology gone mad. Stealing a book? Fornication with demons! I’d be lashed into a Wicker Man and burnt as one of the highlights of Hornsea Carnival. No – in York, in spitting distance of a rail-link to the Continent, I was safe, or at least I had a damn good chance of escaping if they came after me.
But gradually my conscience blackened and festered. Norman looked down at me from the back cover of Europe, his scholarly frown turning gradually to a sneer of contempt. Wretch! he seemed to say. I didn’t write my book to have you besmirch it with your pathetic criminality! (Or on days when I was in a hurry, twat).
And last year, it all became too much for me. I knew that however belatedly, I had to do The Right Thing.
“What was the title again?” said the library’s desk clerk.
“Europe” I said with the air of Gandalf spitting out the language of Mordor. “You can’t miss it. You’d have had a gap in one of your shelves. Or maybe an empty shelf.”
“There’s no record, I’m afraid. No record of you neither, Mr Cowdung,” (I didn’t correct him, just in case he found a computer record flashing MARKED FOR EXECUTION) “but that’s not surprising after the upgrade.”
“Oh yes, marvellous it is. All the East Yorkshire libraries are now organised around a centralised computer network called the East Coast Computerised Logical Electronic Systemic Collection And Keepership Edifice (ECCLESCAKE) which keeps everything running smoothly. We don’t need to issue fines nowadays – no, the computer identifies likely suspects or “Pre-Finers”, and the police drops in to check how far through their bookmarks are. It’s elegant and progressive. And according to ECCLESCAKE you don’t actually exist – and neither does that book you’re holding. Probably best you both leave before that changes, eh?”
And that’s how I managed to get out of a £1094.30 library fine. And all it took was 10 years and a mixture of commendable technical efficiency (theirs) and staggering bureaucratic incompetence (mine).
If you’d like to search for some moral or spiritual lesson in all of this, be my guest, but I’m afraid I can’t join you right now – I’ve got a book I really must read.