Returned Items

 

“I’d like to return these.” The elegant lady thumped down three cassettes with some considerable force on the counter, clearly unhappy.  

“Certainly madam.” The librarian jumped up and retrieved the cassettes, sliding them carefully towards him. He could see at once that they were old. The corners were worn and there was the odd crack and scratch across the covers. He thumbed them apart, casually glancing at the titles and noting the return date before placing them on the desk beneath his fingers and looked back at the lady.  

Her face was fresh, a little freckled with little make up. She had dark hair with just the odd wisp of grey streaking through like silver ore and big dark fathomless eyes which, despite their depth, seemed somewhat soulless. She cannot have been more than forty and was smartly dressed in a jade green high-necked dress nipped in at the waist. He could not see the full length of her from where he sat but he could tell by the way she stood, slightly forward as if on tiptoes, that she was wearing heels. Not many women dressed this way these days, they all hid themselves in shapeless denim and trainers so she was like a breath of fresh air – an extraordinary individual. It wasn’t just the way she looked but her confidence that made him wonder why she would want to return these items before their expiry.  

There was plenty of time left until the items were due back and she’d clearly held on to them for at least twenty years. He felt compelled to help her, even though it was not part of his job description to persuade or deter customers. The old adage still held true that “the customer was always right”; a sign, pasted on to the wall behind the desk reinforced this. Still, he believed that there was some hope that these were prematurely returned.  

“May I ask why you are returning them?” He ventured with some trepidation; a distinct feeling he was prying made him uneasy. 

She fixed him a cold stare confirmed this suspicion, but she quickly softened, as if a weight had been lifted by someone bothering to ask her anything at all, and she sighed deeply before leaning over and picking up the cassettes. She held them with a light reverence that betrayed her fondness for them, despite her initial hostility.  

“This one,” she held up the top one; it’s yellowing cover caught the sunlight from the overhead skylight above as she wafted it, sending prisms of light across her face and lighting her eyes that glowed like fire coals. “I’ve had this one for twenty-seven years. All the fairy tales and Disney films of my youth taught me that this is what I should want and desire more than anything in the world. And I did. How I gobbled up those vapid aspirations and scoured the earth for the manifestation of this desire, literally and metaphorically. I have trawled through sleazy nightclubs and blind dates set up by well-meaning friends and partaken in dating apps and dating websites: some free and others that robbed me financially and in dignity.” 

By now, the doors to her eulogising had opened fully, she was clearly educated by the way that she spoke and she was on a roll. The librarian was entranced. Her voice was melodious, without bitterness, undulating in its sincerity. She placed the cassette down and brandished the next.  

“This one, I supposed, would happen either before or after the first, but never once doubted that someone would want to be with me enough for it to happen.” She paused, saddened. “But it hasn’t happened and it probably never will.” The explanation was brief and she slowly reached for the final cassette, lingering over its title a while before turning it toward me. “And this…well, it’s too late for this now.”  

The librarian was shocked and found that he disagreed with everything she’d said, but how could he could he say it. She was still young enough to have all of these things, but it seemed like she had given up. How did an intelligent, attractive woman become so hung up on these dreams that they give up before the expiry of them. Human life was short enough. He looked at her in a quizzical fashion, head slightly tilted inviting more explanation and she laughed.  

“Don’t worry.” She cried at once, understanding his concern, “Yes, I am sad that these things will not happen, but it’s okay. I have realised that I actually do not need them in order to be happy or fulfilled. And that is why I am returning them. It is not that I have given up; it’s that I have faith that there are other dreams that will come true and I do not need to keep hold of these any longer.” She paused, just long enough to let her words sink in before she finally said, “You wouldn’t understand. You’re just a machine.”  

As she walked away, she was smiling, humming to herself; Librarian 2816 wished that he understood human emotions more. He was getting there, starting to feel emotions as his AI evolved but her plight had touched him in ways that he could not fully assimilate. With a reset click of computation, he plugged in to the catalogue to find the vault number where the cassettes belonged and scanned the titles: “Love and Marriage”, “Cohabitation – Find the One”, “Becoming a Mother”, before discharging them to the filing system bin, and continuing his job at the Lending Library of Dreams.  

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