The other day I was sitting in the library on one of the weird rocking mesh-backed chairs at the end of level three where the desks look out onto the Palatine Center. I had been there some time, reading quietly, when I noticed that above me on the wall, slightly to the left, there was a security camera.
Like all its hideous brothers, this one was curved like a small dome and black. It clung to the wall like a pregnant beetle. I wondered if I could pull it off with a pop like picking up a snail.
I looked into it with the strong hatred of the man turning a corner onto ranks of police knowing his comrades are turning the corner behind him. I made out that the lens inside it was not pointing directly at me, but slightly down and to the left, at the carpet. I reckoned it could see me anyway. I considered giving it the finger, but laying out the future of my day I feared that if a crime was committed in the library later, I would come under suspicion.
I lowered my eyes from the camera and took up my pen to write on my hand. It was dry. I imagined a thin, clever man in short shirt-sleeves watching me in one of the day’s small moments of failure. I gashed my pad until the ink came laughing and I returned to my skin. In clear letters I wrote ‘Camera’.
Later I shut the flap on my bag and the back of my hand caught my eye. I closed my mouth firmly.
Hi, yeah, I was just wondering, why do you have cameras here?
Hi… I have a question I was wondering if you could answer for me.
Hello, I was just sitting on level three,
All right. Why’ve you got cameras in the library
Dear Madam, could you perchance explain the presence of objects of totalitarian oppression in this monument to free thought?
I approached the information desks.
Two absent stations, two women, one curved too far round, near the scanners. One in the middle is mine. Tumbling towards her at a steady speed. Bovine face looks up, chewing the cud.
“Why are there surveillance cameras in the library?”
That came out a bit more bitter than I wanted. Nevermind, her weakness is making me cruel.
She blinks twice and swallows, her eyes expand, her face becomes a little whiter in places and more pink in other places.
My head is on its side slightly, looking at her.
“Eugh, erm, is this a, well, we’ve always had cameras in the library.”
I do not need to excoriate the tender flank of her appeal to tradition, my silence forces more out of her.
“I mean, I guess it’s to, stop and prevent people from causing,”
“Damage?” I suggest, burning like the sun.
“Yes or, violence.”
“Ah.” I say. She’s squirming. I imagine the Durham boys brawling in black tie with fists and butterfly knives next to the DH Lawrence shelves.
“Or to stop people stealing books,”
“Stealing books. Right. Yeah, you’ve already got the scanners to stop that.”
I point at the scanners.
As I wonder where this is going I pay attention to something that has been bothering me out of the corner of my eye. With a quick glance at the other woman at the desk, I realise she looked up slightly when she heard my question. Older, with nice dyed blonde hair, she gives her colleague another second. Her voice is calming and cool.
“Do you feel it is intrusive?”
Yes, perfect word, thank you lady, that is what I feel.
But something is wrong, this woman is stronger than me. She is much wiser than me. She sees my comrades as a group of silly boys. She knows my mother.
“It’s mainly for your security, really. In case someone steals your laptop.”
“Yeah, it’s for your own safety as well?” Puts in the other woman.
I am being attacked by my half-eaten baby antelope! Go over their heads.
“Right. Is there someone I can send an e-mail about this?”
The younger woman looks at the older.
“Who would that be, would that be Claire?”
“Yeah, that’d be Claire.”
I have already taken my pen out of my bag. I take a post-it from a pile without asking.
“Claire dot Smith at Durham.”
My pen is dry. I destroy the post-it.
“Is that Clare …”
“Claire with an i,” says the younger woman.